Editorial: Change in leadership is chance to rethink what Haskell can be

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Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Haskell Indian Nations University still has the ability to stand out as unique. Whether it is the beautiful Haskell arch, the historic but worn Haskell Stadium, or maybe even just its brightly colored dormitories, it still has the ability to cause a visitor traveling by it to ask: What is that place?

In one regard, Lawrence residents can answer with pride that there is no other place quite like it in America. It is a four-year university serving the entire Native American and indigenous peoples community. We can legitimately say that Lawrence has a special place in those national communities, thanks to Haskell.

But in another regard, Haskell is depressingly common. It is a federal bureaucracy with all the detriments that come attached to such institutions.

Haskell again is undergoing change, as it was reported this week that Haskell President Venida Chenault won’t be returning to the school following a leave of absence that began in November after a federal report detailed allegations of misconduct at the university.

Chenault’s exit isn’t particularly surprising. Less surprising is that the entire situation has been handled by Haskell’s Washington bosses with the touch of a bureaucrat rather than the ideals of truth and transparency that should permeate an institution of higher learning.

The Bureau of Indian Education — the federal department that oversees Haskell — insists in November that Chenault simply was on “special assignment for BIE.”

If federal bureaucrats believe that the appropriate time to send a leader on special assignment is when that leader’s institution is facing a crisis of confidence, then they are wearing their ballcaps too tight these days.

It is a pretty predictable play for federal bureaucrats. That playbook is an overarching problem for Haskell. Too many staff at Haskell there feel like they are simply federal employees rather than members of a faculty or staff at an institution of higher learning. For Haskell to reach its full potential, that needs to change, and perhaps there is an opportunity to begin that process now.

Lawrence leaders — which, of course, includes members of the Haskell community — should become engaged in the search process for a new president of Haskell. Leaders should reach out to Kansas’ congressional delegation and ask them to become directly involved. Maybe a Lawrence delegation ought to seek a meeting with BIE leaders. We should advocate for the Haskell we want, not the one that a federal playbook will create.

Haskell can be such an incredibly more important part of the Lawrence community and economy. Sometimes Lawrence overthinks its economic development strategy. At our core, we are a university community and we prosper when there are more students here. There could be significantly more students at Haskell if the university and the community would work together to make it so. Think of this: The U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 reported about 5.2 million people identified as American Indian or Alaska Native. Haskell’s enrollment in October had fallen to 733 students. We are living in a time where recognizing and understanding your identity and heritage is becoming more valued. Haskell can benefit from that trend.

Haskell has a very capable interim leader right now. Dan Wildcat is an ingrained member of the Lawrence community who cares deeply about Haskell and has its best interests at heart. The institution seemingly has the luxury of taking some time to think about its future. The broader Lawrence community should engage in that thinking too. We have resources — there are experts in Lawrence on running world-class endowments, for instance — that could help take Haskell to a new level.

Haskell should not settle for being unique. It can become one of the most important — and powerful — institutions and employers in Lawrence. Is the Lawrence community interested in seeing that happen?

Maybe it is time we all ask a slight variation of the question visitors so often ask of Haskell: What is that place, and what do we want it to be?


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