Brenda Councillor admits she was a rabble-rouser on the campus of Haskell Indian Nations University.
But it still came as a shock when she discovered over the holidays that she had had been graduated — and kicked out of her dorm room — against her will.
University administrators admit they waived her last semester and a required course, but they deny it was to get rid of her.
Councillor isn’t so sure.
“I get a call from the registrar, and he says, ’I have some good news — you’re graduated,’ “ recalled Councillor, 45, who is originally from Wisconsin. “I feel like I’ve been banished.”
As a member of the student Senate, Councillor had complained loudly about university President Linda Sue Warner’s decisions. Councillor circulated a petition last fall seeking the removal of Warner, who has had a stormy relationship with students and the Board of Regents during her two-year tenure.
But Warner insisted this week that had nothing to do with Councillor being barred from the dorms, locked out of her campus e-mail account and getting her diploma early.
“I can’t imagine that it did,” Warner said.
Warner said the university registrar decided to waive Councillor’s final required course. Warner noted that Councillor already had 10 more credits than required for a degree and has been on campus for four years. She said the university wants students to make academic progress and graduate so other students can enroll.
But Warner acknowledged that the university has “administratively graduated” only one other student in the past, and that other students take five or six years to graduate without officials taking similar action.
Still, she doesn’t understand why Councillor’s upset — even though her name was listed incorrectly on her diploma.
“I would be surprised if you could find anybody who would not be glad to graduate,” Warner said.
University registrar Manny King did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did Russell Blackbird, the acting vice president of academic affairs, who oversees academic policy.
Councillor wrote Blackbird asking him about the decision to award her a degree and refund her student fees and his response came in a letter dated Jan. 6:
“My priority is working with current Haskell Indian Nations University students,” Blackbird wrote. “Your concerns as a recent graduate of Haskell Indian Nations University in American Indian Studies will not be considered at this time.”
But George Tiger, vice chairman of the university’s Board of Regents, called Councillor’s case “worrying.”
“We hear concerns from a lot of students,” Tiger said. “One concern we hear is that there’s a possibility of retaliation if you’re not a supporter of Dr. Warner.”
The Regents represent tribes from across the nation and have only advisory power. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Education oversees Haskell directly. Tiger said he and other regents will meet with bureau officials next week to discuss concerns about Haskell’s administration.
Warner said that the decision to give Councillor a degree is part of a larger effort to bring university policies in line with larger universities around the country.
But the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri and the University of Missouri at Kansas City have no policies forcing a student to graduate because they’ve been on campus too long. In some cases, students risk losing course credits if they take too long to get a degree.
Robert Martin served as Haskell’s president for a decade before he left in 1999 to teach at other universities. He said he couldn’t recall ever forcing a student to graduate because they’d been on campus too long.
“We didn’t have that policy in place at Haskell or at any of the places where I’ve worked,” Martin said.
When Warner took over as president two years ago, she promised to modernize Haskell — the nation’s only federally funded four-year university dedicated to Native American students — and make it competitive with major universities.
She started a new campus research center, implemented a new student health program, signed cooperative agreements with other universities and started work to expand degree options. A new personnel policy was established, and some faculty members were reassigned.
Yet some students complained that Warner wanted to raise student fees and hadn’t done enough to address campus security or upgrade computers. The Board of Regents also complained that Warner wasn’t listening to students and wasn’t forthcoming about university finances.
Last summer, the Regents called for Warner to step down and asked for an investigation of her administrative policies. Warner refused and was backed by her supervisors in Washington.
Last fall, 400 of the university’s 997 students signed Councillor’s petition seeking Warner’s removal or resignation. Then earlier this month, the University’s Endowment Association disbanded because it said Warner wouldn’t meet with them.
“She does things on her own and doesn’t consider what it means to other people,” said Martha Houle, an Overland Park, Kan., resident and former president of the Haskell Alumni Association. “That’s not the way to lead Haskell.”
Warner dismisses such criticism, saying that many of her critics are simply resistant to change.
“We’re trying to make the university closer to what one would expect out of a major university,” she said.
Councillor, however, isn’t leaving without a fight. She has lodged complaints with members of Congress, the federal Inspector General’s office and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
She’s spending her nights at the home of a friend, and spending her days hanging out at the campus library.
“They’re trying to run me off,” Councillor said. “I’m still here.”