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Faculty launch petition after SFU cancels Aboriginal transition program

The university said the decision was prompted by declining enrolment

Members of the SFU community are speaking out after the university abruptly cancelled the Aboriginal University Transition Program (AUTP) last month. Vice-President (VP) academic Peter Keller said that the “difficult decision” to cut the program was the result of declining enrolment.

Faculty have launched a petition calling on the administration to reinstate the program for the upcoming academic year. So far, it has collected over 650 signatures.

Natalie Knight, an AUTP instructor, said that the cancellation came without warning to students or staff on April 19. She noted that the program blended Indigenous knowledge with traditional academics to assist Indigenous students transitioning into university.

“I think the university has a real opportunity to right a wrong and show that they are still committed to Indigenous education,” said Knight, who is a doctoral candidate and a member of the Yurok and Navajo nations.

However, VP academic Keller told The Peak that the university plans to put the program’s funding this year toward a review.

“What we are doing here is we are shutting down the existing program to allow us a pause to re-envision [the program],” Keller said. “But our commitment to pathways and bridging programs for our Aboriginal students to access and thrive in post-secondary studies remains an absolute top priority.”

The AUTP, based at SFU Surrey, saw almost 80 students enrolled over six years between the Aboriginal University Prep Program and the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program.

One staff position was eliminated as a result of the decision to cancel the program.

Program supported students

Herb Varley, a community activist, graduated from the Aboriginal University Prep Program a few weeks ago and intends to pursue an undergraduate degree at SFU. He said that he was “angry, but not surprised” that the university chose to shut down the AUTP.  

For Varley, the administration’s actions show that they are not fully committed to Indigenous students.

It was the strength of the students and the staff and the faculty that [made] the program work,” he said. The AUTP provided a support system for students who might otherwise feel isolated in the university environment.

“We came from all different walks of life; we all had different experiences. And I know that every single one of us had wanted to walk away from it all because it was really hard, but given that it was a small cohort, we were able to support each other,” Varley explained.

After being out of school for 14 years, Varley said that the program helped him gain the practical skills necessary to succeed in an academic environment.

“Many Indigenous students are wary of attending any Canadian institution” given the history of colonialism and residential schools, he explained.   

Low enrolment

Keller noted that the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program has not run for two years as a result of low enrolment.

In the 2015–16 academic year, only two students enrolled in the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program and were offered placement with the further nine students in the Aboriginal University Prep Program. This past year, no students enrolled in pre-health and five attended the prep program.

Enrolment numbers peaked during the first year in 2011–12 with 10 students in each of the two programs, capped at 12 students.

“[Y]ou need a critical mass of students to run a meaningful, cohort-based program,” Keller explained. “The numbers clearly weren’t what we are hoping to achieve here.”

“At some point, you have to make a hard decision and you have to just say, ‘Would it still be responsible to allow very few students to enrol in this program when we know if we re-envisioned it we could do so much better?’”

However, Knight disagreed.

“We need small classroom sizes because we would not be able to provide the intensive support that we do for students [otherwise],” she said, adding that the university could dedicate more resources to recruitment and do more to assist students in covering the annual tuition costs.

Pressure to reinstate the program

“It’s above all a loss for students because it was creating a space for Indigenous students to learn at SFU,” said Rochelle Tucker, a senior lecturer and former instructor in the pre-health program.

Students and staff have voiced that they want to see the program reinstated immediately for the 2017–18 academic year and are urging the administration to consult those who are affected by the decision.

The department of sociology and anthropology also sent a public letter addressed to Keller expressing their opposition.

Knight wants to see the university involve the students, instructors, and staff that they cut out of the decision to cancel the program in the review of the AUTP. The commitment from SFU is there, according to Keller.

“What [the program] really needs is this re-imagining in full consultation with the Aboriginal communities,” he said.

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