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AUCC affirms member status for First Nations U

But university still faces challenges from the academy

By PEGGY BERKOWITZ | JUN 09 2008

First Nations University of Canada welcomed the vote by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s board to restore the university’s institutional membership in the association.

“We’re very pleased,” said Charles Pratt, president of First Nations University, in an interview one month after AUCC lifted its probationary status at its April 1 board meeting. “We’ve valued our membership throughout and we did everything we could to try to reach middle ground on meeting the criteria for membership.”

The university had been placed on probationary status by the AUCC board in April 2007 because of concerns over its governance and institutional autonomy.

AUCC said it is “satisfied that First Nations University and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, or FSIN, have made sufficient advances in resolving governance issues.”

The key changes include a smaller and more independent board. The FSIN executive no longer serves as chair or as voting members of the board. Last October, FSIN vice-chief Lyle Whitefish resigned as board chair “as an act of goodwill,” said Mr. Pratt, and the board appointed Clarence Bellegarde, chief of File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, in his place. The board’s size was cut to 18 voting members from about 30: three members represent student associations, one, the faculty and 14, various First Nations in Saskatchewan. Ten others with non-voting status represent FSIN, federal and provincial governments, women, the University of Regina and aboriginal Elders.

AUCC did not discuss its board decision but said in a release, “We are confident that the changes to the governance structures and processes recently formalized by FSIN provide for institutional autonomy, which is fundamental to the functioning of a university in a democratic society, and is a value all AUCC members believe to be fundamental.”

Mr. Pratt said that in negotiations with AUCC, one of the key issues for the university was retaining “the linkages with our communities” and “control and management of the university by First Nations people.” The university is subject to FSIN legislation and is the only Canadian university to offer degree programs exclusively in an environment of First Nations cultures and values.

However, the struggle for recognition by the academic community is not entirely over for First Nations University. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents faculty unions, condemned AUCC for restoring its full membership, calling the move “a disservice to aboriginal postsecondary education.” Further, CAUT announced in early May that it will censure the university by November if it does not remedy what the association terms “gross violations of basic university governance principles, academic freedom and staff rights.” CAUT says censure means that scholars would be asked not to accept faculty appointments or invitations to speak or participate in academic conferences there, and it “could have grave consequences for the institution.”

Mr. Pratt said that while the university has no say over CAUT’s decisions, it plans to meet with the group in late June to start discussing some of their concerns. “I think we can hopefully resolve some of their concerns without compromising our core values,” he said.

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