Haskell faculty member files nepotism complaint against university’s president

photo by: Conrad Swanson

A sign at the entrance to Haskell Indian Nations University is shown Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.

A Haskell Indian Nations University faculty member has filed a nepotism complaint against the university’s president, Venida Chenault, claiming the employment of Chenault’s son is improper and contributes to administrative issues at the school.

Theresa Milk, a professor of American Indian Studies, said she has worked for Haskell sporadically since 2001. She has seen a total of five administrations and when she came back to the school most recently in 2014, she noticed a series of problems.

“Student grievances aren’t being handled. University Service’s response is always ‘I’ll look into it,'” she said. “The faculty have no redress either. We have a union, but the administration hasn’t met with that union for months.”

So this spring Milk said she filed a nepotism complaint with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General.

The complaint, she said, is meant to focus attention on the university, which she said is foundering. Frustration at the school is becoming more visible. For the last several days protesters intermittently have been near the entrance to the Haskell campus at 23rd and Massachusetts with signs critical of the Haskell administration.

The nepotism complaint stems from the employment of Chenault’s son, Joshua Arce, who is both the school’s chief information officer and acting dean of students, Milk said.

Milk contends federal policy requires that there be two levels of supervisory separation between family members who work at the university. She contends that is not the case between Chenault and Arce.

The Journal-World wasn’t able to confirm details of the federal policy on Thursday.

A representative from the Haskell president’s office forwarded all questions seeking comment to the Bureau of Indian Education, which did not return phone calls from the Journal-World.

Arce also did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

“When you have a mother and son team who are controlling a good portion of the university and making decisions, I think that aren’t in the best interest of the students, then it’s my responsibility to say something,” Milk said.

Other faculty members and students at Haskell are in a similar position, where their questions, complaints or concerns fall on deaf ears, Milk said, but often they are too afraid of retribution to speak out.

When she came back to Haskell in 2014, Milk said she signed a contract for four years. She was soon told the grant money funding her position ran out and her employment would be cut short.

In disagreement with the school’s position on her job, Milk said she still comes to work. But she has been given new responsibilities she calls “busy work,” and her office has been moved to a cubicle away from students and other staff members.

“I think part of the strategy is that I’ll get tired of playing this game and I’ll leave and they don’t have to terminate me,” she said. “I feel like I’m being harassed and bullied out.”