First Nations chiefs dissolve board at troubled aboriginal university

Staff ~ The Truro Daily News
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REGINA - Aboriginal leaders in Saskatchewan voted Thursday to dissolve the board of governors at the embattled First Nations University of Canada and put the administration on leave in an effort to save the school and rebuild its tarnished reputation.
Guy Lonechild, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, said an interim, non-political board made up of First Nations academic professionals will be put in place at the university.
"This is a step in the direction to rebuild the credibility and the reputation of the First Nations University," Lonechild said from Saskatoon. "People need to know that this is a new era for the university."
"We did the right thing today by looking at supporting our students who had some uncertainties and some major questions regarding the governance, management and administration of the university and its board of governors," he said.
"This a step forward for ensuring that our students hopes and their success are first."
The aboriginal university was opened in 2003 with the idea that education would be to the future of young aboriginal people what the buffalo was to past generations. But it has been under one cloud or another for virtually its entire existence.
Questions were raised about the university's survival after the Saskatchewan government announced earlier this week that it will cut $5.2 million in funding over concerns about governance at the school, including allegations of political interference from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.
Lonechild said the chiefs didn't want to take the chance that the federal government - which provides the aboriginal university with about $7.2 million annually - would follow the province's lead. Ottawa is already holding back $1.2 million from the funding because it's waiting for a governance review which is overdue.
"It was certainly a very real threat that the university would no longer exist if we didn't take the action today," said Lonechild.
Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris said he had not yet received confirmation of the board being dissolved. He said it would be a hopeful sign on the road to change, but that doesn't mean the funding will be restored.
"This is a long-standing issue regarding governance reform and it's going to take, in my opinion, some considerable and prolonged deliberations. I don't think the activities of an afternoon are going to resolve these outstanding issues," said Norris.
"I don't want to discourage the work that's underway ... but the government of Saskatchewan stands by its decision regarding the funding for First Nations University."
The funding cut will pose a problem, acknowledged University of Regina president Vianne Timmons.
The First Nations University is considered a federated college of the University of Regina, meaning the school is academically integrated but administratively independent.
"With losing 20 per cent of the funding, First Nations University faces a huge challenge," said Timmons.
Enrolment has dwindled. There were about 1,200 students when it became a university in 2003. There are currently about 670 students.
Staff turnover has been high. More than one-third of academic staff and about half of the administrative, professional and technical employees have been fired or resigned since the school's inception.
Remaining staff are worried, said Janice Foley of the University of Regina Faculty Association, which also represents staff at the First Nations University.
"We are getting lots of questions from the faculty and staff over there, asking about their futures and we're very upset that we can't answer them because we have nothing that we can absolutely say," said Foley.
Timmons tried to reassure students about their degrees.
"The students that enrol through First Nations University are students of the University of Regina and we will ensure with our partners that they complete their academic studies in the program they registered for," said Timmons. "We're committed to that."
Students have been pleading for changes to be made with the school's governance.
Cadmus Delorme, a second-year business student who also holds a position with the university student association, said earlier Thursday that students have been frustrated with the people who run the aboriginal university.
"As students we did all we could do," said Delorme.
"We spoke from our heart, we spoke to every stakeholder we could, we talked to all the professors. Our own president of our university would not talk to us. Our own board of governors gave us half an hour.
"Our voices weren't heard loud enough, I guess," said Delorme.
The situation is a far cry from the pomp and pageantry that marked the university's opening.
Hundreds gathered to watch Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, and other dignitaries unveil the new plaque at the entrance to the sleek, beige and green glass building.
But problems erupted in 2005 when a federation vice-chief, who was chairman of the board of governors, suspended several senior administrators, seized the university's central computers and copied the hard drive with all faculty and student records.
The federation set up an all-chiefs task force that recommended governance changes, but they were never made.
The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada put the university on probation in 2007. That probation was lifted in 2008 but later that year, the Canadian Association of University Teachers voted to censure the school for "its ongoing failure to resolve the serious problems with the governance of the university."
A provincially funded operational review said in January 2009 that the school needed a smaller, less politicized board.
A wrongful dismissal suit recently filed by a former financial officer at the university alleges there were questionable travel expenses and paid vacation time. A financial audit has been ordered and is to be completed by March.
Clarence Bellegarde, chairman of the university's board of governors, had asked for patience while the school works through its problems, saying people need to wait for the outcome of the audit and governance review. The review was due last fall but it was pushed back to the end of January and now won't be ready until mid-February.

Organizations: First Nations University of Canada, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, University of Regina University of Regina Faculty Association Canadian Association of University

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Ottawa Canada

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