Haskell president who was removed from office defends his tenure, says he would never intentionally violate First Amendment

photo by: Chad Lawhorn

Haskell Indian Nations University President Ronald Graham provides closing remarks at a Veterans Day celebration at the university on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.

The recently removed president of Haskell Indian Nations University said on Monday that it was his “honor” to serve in his role and that he would never intentionally violate the First Amendment.

Ronald Graham, who was removed from office on Friday, also shared what he considered his accomplishments during his brief tenure.

“The people have read enough negative about this phenomenal university and I wanted to take a moment to share a few of the things we have in progress so some of the positive could be exposed,” he wrote in a statement sent to the Journal-World.

Graham’s dismissal came after he was the subject of a unanimous vote of no-confidence by Haskell’s Faculty Senate. Following the 25-0 vote of no confidence, the Bureau of Indian Education sent a team to the Lawrence campus last month to do an administrative review. Graham is also currently being sued by a Haskell student journalist for allegedly violating the student’s First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit, filed by student editor Jared Nally, came after Graham sent a directive to Nally in October telling Nally what he could and could not publish. Only a little over a week after he was sued by Nally, Graham sent a directive to his staff restricting how they could communicate. On April 6, Tony Dearman, the director of the Bureau of Indian Education, rescinded Graham’s directive to his staff, stating that the bureau was committed to freedom of expression.

Graham said in his statement that he would never intentionally violate the First Amendment. He said he is a veteran of the U.S. Army.

“I took an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States several times and protect it from those foreign and domestic,” Graham wrote. “I have been accused of violating a student’s 1st Amendment rights and now those of the faculty. I would never do this intentionally or otherwise. I love our flag and this country and fought to protect it.”

In his statement, Graham said that during his tenure Haskell created a five-year strategic plan and that the first year of the plan is already underway. He said he set up a research proposal initiative so that faculty could compete for research opportunities, hired a local attorney to rewrite “antiquated policies,” hired two grant writers and initiated a program and hired a recruitment team to improve student retention.

He also said an endowment policy was written and that his goal was to raise $100 million in 10 years and to expand the athletic department, bring the football team back and more, in an effort to increase student enrollment through athletics. Graham wrote that he was working with the Haskell Foundation board for a more “progressive and aggressive unit in bringing in funding for the university.”

“I partnered with several large Corporations who sadly, are now retracting their endowment offers due to my departure,” he wrote. “You must ask…. who loses here? Obviously, the students would be my first answer.”

Graham does not specify the corporations by name.

Graham said he had no regrets moving to Lawrence and that it is a “wonderful community” in which he and his wife have made lifelong friends. He wrote that he has “tremendous respect” for the faculty at Haskell and that “most are professional, hardworking and genuinely care about their students.”

“I love Haskell, most of its employees, and this community,” he wrote. “I wanted to take a moment to thank all of those in support and it has been my honor to serve.”

Graham, a former division dean of instruction at Victor Valley College in Victorville, Calif., began his presidency of Haskell in May of 2020. Prior to his becoming president, Haskell was led by two interim presidents — Jim Rains and Dan Wildcat — for more than a year. Before that, Haskell was led by President Venida Chenault, who left in 2018 to work on special assignment for the Bureau of Indian Education just days after a federal report detailed allegations of misconduct at the university.

The current acting president of Haskell, Tamarah Pfeiffer, a leader in the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Education, did not immediately respond to questions from the Journal-World regarding Graham’s statement and her vision for Haskell.

On Friday Brandon Yellowbird-Stevens, president of the Haskell National Board of Regents, told the Journal-World that Graham’s dismissal was “more than likely needed” because of a “disconnection” between the Regents, the president of Haskell, and the Faculty Senate and staff. He said that the communication problems with Graham were significant and that he hoped Haskell could restructure itself to operate more like a traditional university than a federal bureaucracy.


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