Government & Politics

Haskell hopes for independence as campus mires in disappointment

Some students chose to wear traditional regalia during the Haskell Indian Nations University commencement at the Lawrence campus last May. But the federally funded university’s low graduation rate reflects a wide variety of problems.
Some students chose to wear traditional regalia during the Haskell Indian Nations University commencement at the Lawrence campus last May. But the federally funded university’s low graduation rate reflects a wide variety of problems. skeyser@kcstar.com

Normally this time of year at Haskell Indian Nations University, they’d be getting ready for the homecoming football game.

But not this October. There’ll be no game because Haskell recently cut its football program to save money.

Students, faculty and alumni were stunned to hear university President Venida Chenault’s announcement last spring.

“So,” a first-year player tweeted at the news, “I left my loved ones and traveled 800 miles chasing a dream that has now been taken from me. Wow.”

But also there’s recognition across campus that Haskell is in a tight spot. When a university can’t afford enough professors to teach all the classes students would like to take, it’s hard to justify spending on football.

Yet at this low point in Haskell’s history, there is a new sense of hope as the school’s board of regents meets this week to discuss possibly taking a bold step that could help escape decades of fiscal starvation.

It’s far from a sure thing, but the conviction has grown that something has to change.

“I think we have entered a time where we realize we can’t rely on government funding to supply what we need here,” said student Lori Hasselman, editor of the school newspaper.

While many small colleges scrape to get by, Haskell is a special case as the only four-year university open solely to members of American Indian tribes and wholly owned by the American taxpayers.

That relationship has limited its ability to grow and, at times, to take care of basic needs. Over the past 131 years, the federal government has spent untold millions of dollars to feed, house and educate tens of thousands of young Native Americans, who pay no tuition and minimal student fees in fulfillment of treaty obligations.

But that support has often fallen short, with little promise it will ever improve. The erosion in federal support over the decades means Haskell has roughly half as many faculty members today as it did 30 years ago, yet enrollment hasn’t diminished nearly that much.

University president Venida Chenault explains that Haskell trains leaders for American Indian tribes across the United States

Many of its buildings are run down, its technology out of date. Only this past summer did Internet access become available in the school’s dormitories, thanks to grants that also paid for new dorm room furniture and other upgrades.

In addition, school officials have been trying to address decades of academic issues without much success. Among them, few four-year degree programs and a freshman dropout rate that one top Haskell official called “dismal.” The graduation rate, The Star found, is less than half the national average for public four-year universities.

So while the sudden death of Haskell’s football team was barely a blip on the American sports scene, Chenault’s move reinforced a longstanding belief across Indian Country.

Which is that Haskell might be better off if it broke free from its federal masters in the Department of the Interior. Under such a plan, Haskell would continue to receive base financial support from taxpayers, but without the federal red tape that limits its ability to raise other funds to fix its many deficiencies.

“What we all hope for Haskell for the future is that it’s truly controlled by tribal people,” said Carrie Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

The issue has been been debated off and on for decades. But this time, the matter is getting serious attention. School administrators have been discussing it with students and faculty and talking to members of the Kansas congressional delegation.

The cause was bolstered this summer by a report from Haskell’s accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission, concluding that federal rules and funding constraints divert time and energy away from the university.

That’s what former Haskell president Gerald Gipp has been saying since the 1980s, when he first suggested breaking free of government control and faced opposition from other Indian leaders who feared it would mean the end of federal financial support.

“I think the reality is setting in that they need to do something different,” Gipp said recently. “Obviously, to do nothing is not the thing to do.”

Doing nothing certainly is one of the options regents have. Another is asking Congress for legislative fixes that would allow Haskell to operate without some of the federal regulations that make it difficult to hire faculty even when there is money in the budget for it.

Most regents declined The Star’s request for comment about their stances, but regent Elvira Largie from the Navajo Nation is among those who isn’t interested in taking halfway measures. She’s for Haskell leaving the federal system, the sooner the better.

“Let’s just get it done,” Largie said.

Free tuition

If Native Americans take over Haskell, the symbolism won’t be lost on tribal people.

The government founded Haskell eight years after Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and six years before the blue coats took their revenge at Wounded Knee. Its initial purpose in 1884 was to strip Native American children of their languages and cultures. Teach them “the white man’s ways.”

Now Haskell’s mission is quite the opposite. It’s charged with building leadership capacity in an era when federal Indian policy is focused on strengthening tribal self-determination and cultural preservation.

There are 36 other tribal colleges and universities in the nation, all with similar missions. Thirty-five of them are owned by individual tribes and, with few exceptions, operate like community colleges. They mostly offer two-year degrees to students who live nearby.

Only Haskell and its sister institution, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., serve tribal people from all 50 states.

Many of the 850 students who arrived at Haskell’s 320-acre campus in east Lawrence this fall don’t live near tribal colleges. And they may not have the money or the grades to go elsewhere.

For them, Haskell, with its low admission standards and free tuition policy, provides their best shot at getting a college education.

Sioux. Ojibwa. Cherokee. Aleut. They come from distant rural communities and ordinary suburban neighborhoods. Some from desperate poverty, and others are solidly middle class.

Haskell students are often the first members of their families to attend college, and many come unprepared. Forty percent of freshmen drop out before the second year. Fewer than a third of freshmen students stay on to earn a two- or four-year degree. That’s above the national average for community colleges but far below the rate for four-year institutions.

But current and former faculty members are quick to say that no matter their qualifications, Haskell students come filled with enthusiasm, big hearts and a yearning to learn more about their cultures.

“There are no better students to teach than Haskell students,” said retired professor Denise Low.

American taxpayers spend roughly $12 million a year to underwrite Haskell’s operations, including all but a tiny portion of the cost of feeding, housing and educating the students.

Haskell’s board of regents insists that students pay no tuition, saying they are owed a free education in exchange for their ancestors ceding millions of acres to the government.

Those living in the dormitories, however, pay a flat $715 fee each semester; less if they live off campus. By comparison, tuition and fees alone for one semester at the University of Kansas top $5,000. Room and board can more than double that.

Many private colleges struggle to pay their bills and might welcome having a guaranteed line item in the federal budget the way Haskell does.

But being a ward of the United States government has many drawbacks, Haskell’s regents and administrators say. The biggest being that the school’s budget is subject to the same financial constraints as other federal agencies.

Haskell’s operating budget rose just one half of 1 percent over the last four school years. KU’s operating budget went up 15 percent, thanks to having more sources of revenue rather than just one in Haskell’s case.

Most public universities get money from their state, government grants, private endowment funds, as well as tuition and fees.

Over on Mount Oread, KU always seems to have construction going on. While Haskell’s in need of $18 million just to fix what’s broken.

One of its oldest buildings, historic Hiawatha Hall, has been locked up for years because the government won’t spend money on it.

“It has a very bad problem with mold,” Haskell spokesman Steve Prue said. “The remediation for mold alone will probably cost $2 million.”

Not only is money tight at Haskell — funding can be volatile.

When Congress imposed across-the-board budget cuts on nearly all federal agencies a couple of years ago, Haskell had to slash its tight budget accordingly.

Each time the threat of a government shutdown looms, Haskell’s administrators are instructed to draw up contingency plans.

In making a case for changing Haskell’s governance last month, Chenault reminded students that other colleges look to alumni and other donors for frills like football, taking care of buildings and endowing professorships.

But Haskell doesn’t have that flexibility, she said. Any money given to the university goes into the federal pot, so donors are wary of giving.

Their attitude, Chenault said, is “if we give you a million, then you’re going to get cut by a million.”

Haskell’s newly revived foundation — inactive for more than a decade after its former director looted it — is one way around that. Money from the foundation could be earmarked for specific needs, but the foundation is more than $69 million shy of its $70 million fundraising goal.

“We have a foundation,” former regent Lenore Stiffarm said, “that is limping along.”

Teacher shortage

Haskell offers a mix of two-year and four-year degree programs, although some would like to see those associate’s degree programs phased out. That way Haskell could afford to offer more than the four bachelor degrees now available to students — business, elementary education, American Indian studies and environment science — and possibly add master’s and even Ph.D. programs.

Some see Haskell someday becoming a destination for graduates of two-year tribal colleges wanting to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

“We are the de-facto national American Indian, Alaskan native university,” said longtime Haskell professor Daniel Wildcat. “Let’s be that true flagship.”

Right now, that dream is beyond reach. Given its limited resources and the restrictions the government imposes on it, Haskell has been in survival mode for years.

Students like senior Alicia Gangone may not understand all the reasons behind that, but she understands how it affects her and her classmates.

“If you miss getting into a class that’s only offered in the fall, you have to wait to the next year to take it,” says Gangone, last year’s homecoming queen, from Sisseton, S.D.

Back in the mid-1980s, Haskell had at least 75 full-time teachers. Now there are 44, up from the mid-30s, teaching a smaller student body.

To carry that load, Haskell profs teach four classes each semester, compared to three at many state universities.

“Our classes are getting bigger,” said professor Rhonda LeValdo, the sole member of the media communications department. “We need more faculty. The majority of us are stretched pretty thin.”

Government red tape also has an impact on staffing.

Like many other schools, Haskell has part-time, adjunct professors filling in at a cost of $1,000 per credit hour. Until recently, Haskell handled their hiring, but federal rule changes farmed that out to a private contractor at an additional $800 per credit hour. That means Haskell can afford fewer adjuncts than it might otherwise.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell acknowledged the staffing concerns following the commencement address she gave at last spring’s graduation.

“The funding hasn’t kept up,” she said. “We really need Congress to step up and support the budget for Indian education.”

However, Haskell can only expect “stable funding” from the Department of Interior over the next couple of years, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Republican who represents the district that includes Lawrence.

The Obama administration says it is committed to Indian education. But the focus is on grade-school and high-school students in schools run by the tribes and the Bureau of Indian Education.

“While money for Haskell is important,” Jewell said, “we owe it to Haskell to do a better job on the education of the young people that are going to end up here.”

A translation by Haskell regents chairman Russell Bradley: “We are not a priority.”

Making the break

If Haskell’s regents seek the university’s independence, there’s precedent. Until 1986, the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, N.M., was also part of the government and in worse shape than Haskell.

“The charter for me was the only way we could be where we are now,” said Ryan Flahive, IAIA’s archivist. “Without it, we would have folded.”

Under that congressional charter, IAIA is guaranteed base federal funding, but the feds don’t tell the institute how to spend the money or set rules on hiring and procurement. The Smithsonian Institution operates similarly, as do Howard and Gallaudet universities in Washington, D.C.

In his report to Congress last march, IAIA’s chief financial officer said the school got $51 million from outside sources in the past five years, roughly equal to what Congress appropriated.

“I feel Haskell should be funded the same way as the Institute of American Indian Arts,” said Stiffarm, the former regent.

Whatever path the regents choose, they recognize it won’t be easy taking that next step. They’ll need the backing of the Bureau of Indian Education and some, if not all members of Kansas’ congressional delegation to get anything done.

So far, the BIE has been supportive, at least in terms of Haskell having an internal debate on governance. Whereas “guarded” might be the best way to describe the state’s all-Republican congressional delegation when responding to The Star’s request for comment this week.

Sen. Pat Roberts said in a prepared statement that he’s been concerned about the quality of education provided at Haskell for a long time, but stopped short of endorsing a change in governance.

“I would be interested in first visiting with Haskell Indian Nations University faculty, students and community stakeholders,” he said, “about how we can improve both the education of Haskell students and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.”

Jenkins went further, vowing to help see “what can be done at a Congressional level to … get government out of the way to let them focus on their mission of offering a quality education to Native American students in Kansas and from across the country.”

Sen. Jerry Moran was the most open to change, saying he looks forward to examining Haskell’s proposal.

“I will continue working with the Haskell community to support their mission of providing a quality education for Native Americans,” he said.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

Coming tomorrow: Despite decades of disappointment at Haskell, students learn and honor the school’s history.

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