Haskell professor to temporarily take over as university’s president
photo by: Nick Krug
Haskell Indian Nations University President Venida Chenault will be temporarily handing over the office of president to longtime Haskell professor and administrator Daniel Wildcat, the Journal-World learned Tuesday. The change comes just days after a federal report detailed allegations of misconduct at the university.
Tony Dearman, director of the Bureau of Indian Education, said Wildcat would serve as acting president beginning Tuesday for as long as the next 60 days. During this time Chenault will be on “special assignment for the BIE.”
Haskell faculty learned of the change in an email from the Haskell president’s office. The email specified that the change had been planned to help the BIE “meet mission objectives and should not be misunderstood.”
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Education did not immediately return messages from the Journal-World on Tuesday.
Wildcat has been in a high-level administrative position at Haskell, serving as its acting vice president of academics, for approximately the past year and a half, he said.
He’s worked at the university in various capacities for more than 30 years and is a professor of indigenous and American Indian studies, though he’s not currently teaching, he said. Wildcat is a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation.
Wildcat said to his knowledge the change had nothing to do with the investigation and that it was not an “adverse action.”
Asked when he was consulted about taking the position, Wildcat said he’d “rather not say.”
Wildcat noted that the Bureau of Indian Education was in the middle of implementing a strategic plan for its schools nationwide, and Haskell is a part of that.
He said his goal for the 60-day “detail” assignment — federal terminology for such an appointment — was carrying forward with ongoing work, “and there’s plenty of it.”
“Really it’s just going to be carrying on with all of the work we need to do to continue to be what I consider one of the shining stars of tribal colleges,” Wildcat said.
The U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General over the past two years has conducted an investigation into allegations of misconduct at Haskell, and the report summarizing the investigation’s conclusions was just made public in recent days.
The investigation delved into complaints from some Haskell employees and students about various issues, but alleged mismanagement by Chenault was at the root of them. One of the major findings of the report was that Haskell underreported crime statistics for the federally mandated Clery Report. A Haskell employee admitted to purposely falsifying numbers for the Clery Report, but said she did so at the direction of Chenault, whom she feared. Chenault denied intentionally running afoul of requirements and called the failure “discouraging.”
The DOI OIG report found evidence that at least 10 employees and students felt “bullied and intimidated” by Chenault but did not find evidence that she took disciplinary or other adverse action against any of them.
Chenault and other university officials would not comment to the Journal-World on the report’s findings.
Haskell is the only four-year university operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Education, which reports to the Department of the Interior. Currently, the school enrolls 733 students from 142 different tribal affiliations.
Chenault took over the presidency in January 2014, following what could be described as a revolving door in that office.
In the five years prior to Chenault’s hiring, Haskell was led by more acting presidents than permanent ones.
In 2015, as Haskell prepared for its 10-year accreditation review, one faculty member described Chenault’s first year as picking up “a scattered mess” of issues that had lost momentum or fallen by the wayside.
photo by: Contributed photo