Students frustrated as aboriginal university asks for patience with problems

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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REGINA - Senior officials from the embattled First Nations University of Canada begged for patience Friday while the school works through its problems, but students say they've waited long enough and are ready to take action on their own to save the institution.
Clarence Bellegarde, chairman of the university's board of governors, said in a brief statement that people need to wait for the outcome of a financial audit and a governance review.
"We simply ask that the media, all stakeholders, including the government, to be patient," said Bellegarde.
"All of the speculation, blaming and communicating through the media does nothing but perpetuate misinformation and fuel the fire of cynicism.
"Our students deserve the right to complete their studies and earn the education that they have worked so hard for to achieve. Please respect our students, institution and process."
Bellegarde said all "information will be released and all questions will be answered in due process and in a timely fashion."
The university has been under a cloud of controversy for five years and students, who met with Bellegarde on Friday afternoon, say they're unhappy.
"I want the best education I can have and I can't go to school right now," said Cadmus Delorme, a second year business student who also holds a position with the university student association.
"I can't think of classes with all of this going on. Teachers can't teach in class because they're so worried about our institution."
Delorme said little was accomplished during the 30-minute meeting with Bellegarde.
"He gave us a time limit like we're not very important," said Delorme. "He answered about 14, 15 questions (and) danced around half of them. We're not impressed."
Students said they were also upset that university president Charles Pratt and other school executives weren't at the meeting.
Students don't want to lose their school and will take action, Delorme said.
They've been given a chance to speak to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations assembly next week in Saskatoon. The federation was behind the creation of the university and oversees it.
"We're one loud voice. We want change. We want it immediately," said Delorme.
The meeting came one day after the Saskatchewan government warned that it could cut off funding to the school.
Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris said Thursday that he expects a decision within days about whether to continue supporting the aboriginal university in light of the ongoing governance problems and allegations of financial irregularities.
Complaints about governance have centred around the size of the school's board, its political makeup and its closeness to FSIN.
A governance review was due last fall. It was pushed back to the end of this month and now won't be ready until mid-February.
The audit is to be completed by March. It was ordered after a former financial officer at the university made allegations of questionable travel expenses and paid vacation time.
Norris said $675,000 in conditional funding won't flow to the school until the allegations are resolved. But the big debate is around funding for the next school year - the province provides $4 million to $5 million in annual support.
The federal government provides the aboriginal school with about $7.2 million annually. However, there are conditions on a portion of that funding - including the submission of the governance report - and Ottawa is still holding back $1.2 million.
There have been longstanding concerns with how the Regina-based university is run and questions about political interference from the FSIN.
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 proper governance and operating procedures be restored at the school. The recommendations were never implemented.
That prompted the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada to 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 struggling school needed a smaller, less politicized board and called for changes.
The ongoing problems have led to a drop in enrolment and the dismissal or resignation of more than one-third of academic staff and about half of the administrative, professional and technical employees.
A letter sent Friday to the Ministry of Advanced Education from the chairman of the university's academic council also showed frustration among faculty.
"What has become clear ... is that our administration is incapable of responding to the recent and rapidly unfolding developments in any meaningful manner," wrote Randy Lundy, chairman of the academic council who is also the head of the English Department.
"For five years now, since February of 2005, the board and administration of the university have had every opportunity to enact the changes that need to be made at the university, and they have consistently refused to do so and have done nothing but fight an ongoing delaying action," he wrote.
Lundy said the board and administration are in "no position to enact any form of damage control because there is no controlling the damage" that has been done.
James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, was more grim in his assessment.
"We're now at the point where there's a very good likelihood that the institution is going to go under and the only thing that can save it at this point is the FSIN," Turk said in a phone interview from Toronto.
"Governments can withdraw the funding and that'll be the end of it, but the FSIN could implement the solution that was provided them by their own task force and that would solve the problem.
"What we want is the university to be restored to the path it was on before 2005. It was on the path to being the best First Nations university in North America and that's been completely undermined."

Organizations: Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, First Nations University of Canada, Canadian Association of University Ministry of Advanced Education

Geographic location: REGINA, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Ottawa Canada Toronto North America

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