The First Nations University of Canada has not remedied its alleged violations of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). At a meeting last weekend, CAUT members voted overwhelmingly in favour of censuring First Nations University of Canada (FNUC), which could lead to academics boycotting speaking engagements and appointments at the university.
FNUC has faced criticism for years about alleged political interference from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). A central criticism was Lyle Whitefish serving as chair of the FNUC board of governors. Whitefish also held the position of vice-chief of FSIN and managed their education portfolio. He has since stepped down as chair.
James Turk, executive director of CAUT, explained that his organization’s concerns stem from a February 2005 incident that he calls “the most unprecedented violation of university autonomy that we have seen in this country in 50 years.” At that time, former chair of the FNUC board Morley Watson, who was also a vice-chief of FSIN, suspended three administers for alleged financial improprieties and seized computers from campus. In the following months, many staff members and professors resigned, citing a loss of academic freedom. According to Turk, the institution has not yet addressed the governance problems that led to the mass exodus of professors.
CAUT is a national lobby organization representing 60,000 professors and non-academic staff. This weekend’s vote is the first step towards censuring the university starting in November if CAUT’s concerns are not addressed. If it gets to that point, CAUT will ask the Canadian and international academic community to boycott FNUC, with the goal of making organizing academic conferences and retaining staff difficult for the university. The last time CAUT censured a university was in 1979.
Maclean’s was unable to contact FNUC for response to the proposed censure in time for deadline.
The Association of Universities and Colleges Canada (AUCC) also slapped FNUC on the hand by putting the university on probation in April 2007 for the alleged political interference. Christine Tausig Ford, AUCC director of communications, said at the time, “Having the vice-chief who is responsible for education and training be the board chair would be like having the minister of education in a province be the chair of a university board.”
AUCC is an advocacy group that represents 91 universities in Canada. Because Canada does not have a formal accreditation process, membership in the organization serves as de facto accreditation, giving institutions that right to grant degrees.
But after Whitefish stepped down, AUCC reinstated FNUC as a full member. “The AUCC Board believes it is possible for First Nations University of Canada to protect its uniqueness while, at the same time, sharing the attributes and values fundamental to Canadian universities,” AUCC wrote in a statement released last month. “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.”
CAUT disagrees that FNUC has improved their governance model. When AUCC announced that FNUC would be a full member again, Turk expressed his disappointment. “We are saddened that AUCC did not feel the First Nations University was worthy to be held to the same standard as Canada’s other universities,” he said.
Turk explained in an interview that FNUC responded to public concern about the February 2005 incident by creating a taskforce to look at their governance model. The taskforce made a number of recommendations but, according to Turk, FNUC didn’t implement them.
According to Turk, FNUC also failed to implement the collective agreement negotiated with its staff. Turk says that after the university signed off on the agreement, they refused to implement it. “Then the university said, ‘Well we don’t have any money so we can’t implement this collective agreement’,” Turk said, adding that the university did not mention financial difficulties when in negotiations.
Turk hopes that CAUT can avoid censuring FNUC. The two organizations will meet in late June. “FNUC used to be the finest first nations university in North America,” he said, noting that it has since lost many faculty and staff members and that enrolment is dropping. “We want to get it back there.”