Speaking at the University’s Board of Regents monthly meeting yesterday, Stephen Forrest, vice president for research, announced a new committee had been formed to explore how the University handles culturally unidentifiable human remains.

The Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains, which consists of 10 faculty members and one graduate student, will advise Forrest on how to handle requests from Native American tribes for the transfer of culturally unidentifiable human remains currently being housed in the University’s Museum of Anthropology.

The University has come under fire in the past for refusing to release remains, which Native American tribes have claimed are rightfully theirs. The University has maintained that the remains are not identifiable and that under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act the University is required to maintain possession of the remains until final regulations are released or the Secretary of the Interior explicitly directs the release of the remains.

New regulations are expected to loosen restrictions and to dictate how the University and other organizations should distribute culturally unidentifiable human remains.

Though no new rules have been handed down yet, Forrest said he hopes that the University will “do the right thing, be proactive and be prepared for anticipated changes in federal rules.”

Prof. Phil Deloria, a member of the new committee, said he looks forward to serving on the committee.

“It’s something that’s concerned a lot of native students and lot of native faculty on campus, myself included,” Deloria said. “My sense is that what this committee will do is look at these from a critical intellectual, ethical sense of positions and try to offer advice.”

However, Fred Harrington, a former member of the Lake Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians tribal council, said he doesn’t see a need for the committee.

“I don’t understand what possible good a committee can do,” he said. “I don’t understand how (the University) can continue to hold the remains of tribal ancestors in their museum unless they’ve followed the law, so I’m not sure what they’re doing with the committee.”

H1N1 on campus

Also during the meeting yesterday, the regents received an update on the state of the H1N1 flu at the University.

According to a presentation by Dr. Robert Ernst, the medical director of University Health Service clinic operations, told the regents that the extensive coordination between University Health Service, the University’s Health System, the Office of the Provost and the Division of Student Affairs are key to controlling a possible outbreak on campus.

Ernst said currently the University Hospital sees between five and 10 patients with H1N1 each day, down from early September when as many as 50 cases were visiting the hospital each day.

Ernst explained that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have classified most states as having a widespread outbreak of H1N1, Michigan is one of only a few states not to have been classified in that category.

While Ernst explained this, University President Mary Sue Coleman — a biochemist who has served on the board of the Institute of Medicine — said, “It’s just a matter of time,” referring to the fact that most believe every state will be classified as having widespread cases of H1N1 in the near future.

On a positive note, Ernst said the University of Michigan Health System received its first shipment of H1N1 vaccinations this week and that it would begin giving them to staff next week.

Because of the limited availability of vaccinations, health workers and people at high risk will receive vaccinations first, Ernst said.

In an interview after the meeting, Coleman said she was confident about the plan’s ability to deal with H1N1 at the University.

“I feel really good about our preparation,” Coleman said. “Who knows, we might get a big wave, but I think we’re prepared for it.”

Regents approve honorary degrees

By a unanimous vote, the University’s Board of Regents approved four honorary degrees to be awarded at winter commencement during its monthly meeting yesterday.

Jeff Daniels, a well-known actor, songwriter and playwright, will deliver the keynote address at winter commencement. During the ceremony, University officials will honor him with an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.

Though not speaking at commencement, long-time White House Correspondent Helen Thomas will also attend winter commencement and will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

Grace Lee Boggs, an advocate for civil rights, labor issues and justice, will also accept an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters while in attendance at the winter commencement ceremonies.

Edward Wilson, who spoke at the opening of the University’s Life Science Institute in 2004, will return to campus for winter commencement. While in attendance, Wilson — a widely-known entomologist — will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree.

None of the four individuals are alumni of the University, but University President Mary Sue Coleman said they were selected to receive honorary degrees because of their ties to Michigan and leadership in their fields.

— Daily News Editor Jillian Berman contributed to this report.

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