‘Our Native Americans deserve more’: U.S. Sen. Moran voices frustration with bureaucracy, lack of communication on Haskell

photo by: Journal-World File

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

Updated at 2:27 p.m. Saturday

Though a nearly yearlong vacancy in Haskell Indian Nations University’s permanent presidency seems to finally be nearing its end, local and national Haskell stakeholders are still voicing concerns that the bureaucracy guiding the university’s operations has become detrimental.

As the Journal-World previously reported, the Bureau of Indian Education, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior that is responsible for overseeing Haskell’s operations and hiring, finally provided an update on the search for a new president Thursday — someone has been selected for the position. However, who exactly that person is still hasn’t been announced, and it’s not clear when the name will be made public.

But even that vague news wasn’t announced publicly. Instead, it was shared directly with U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who sits on the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee and who had mailed a letter to BIE Director Tony Dearman earlier Thursday formally requesting more information about the search process.

Moran is one such stakeholder frustrated with the BIE’s lack of communication and its approach to selecting consistent leadership for Haskell. He told the Journal-World as much Thursday afternoon while he was in Lawrence on the University of Kansas campus, just an hour or so before he learned the BIE had selected a new president for Haskell.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, left, speaks during an appearance at the University of Kansas Innovation Park Thursday, April 21, 2022. KU Chancellor Douglas Girod is at right.

“I have visited Haskell several times over the years; I’ve met leaders, toured the campus, and from time to time there have been requests for (federal) help,” Moran said. “We’re very interested in doing that, but the inability to have a consistent leadership, the inability to have somebody who is in charge and who will follow up with us and with others, it just creates a tremendous challenge in trying to find a way to assist something that we are really interested in helping.”

Moran noted that there’s been a revolving door of leadership at Haskell in the past few years, which has made it nearly impossible for the federal government to work with the university. The university has cycled through six temporary or long-term leaders in less than four years — seven if you also count the incoming, still-unnamed president.

Haskell is currently being guided by interim President Tamarah Pfeiffer, who first took on the role in May of 2021. The president whom Pfeiffer replaced, Ronald Graham, stayed in the position for only about a year before being removed from office following an internal investigation and criticism that he was stifling students’ and faculty’s free speech rights.

Graham himself was hired after a year and a half of interim leadership shared between various individuals between late 2018 and May of 2020, a period which was preceded by another controversy. Former Haskell President Venida Chenault left the university in November 2018 just days after a federal investigation of misconduct allegations at Haskell — which specifically alleged that Chenault had directed employees to underreport the university’s crime statistics, largely through intimidation — became public. She had served as president since 2014, then took a position with the BIE. She maintained that she never intentionally misrepresented statistics but was simply unfamiliar with the exact reporting requirements.

Daniel Wildcat, who has worked at Haskell for more than 30 years, took on the interim president role following Chenault’s departure in 2018. Then, Monte Monteith, an education specialist at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., temporarily took over leadership in spring of 2019 before Wildcat re-assumed the interim president position a few months later in the fall. Haskell administrator and instructor Jim Rains also briefly served as acting president in March of 2020 after Wildcat experienced a medical emergency.


The update that the BIE shared with Moran Thursday was rather abrupt, relative to how little it has shared publicly prior to this week. Since February, well over a dozen phone calls from the Journal-World to officials with the BIE — plus the Bureau of Indian Affairs and U.S. Department of the Interior, both offices above the BIE — have gone unanswered. Reaching out via email has been similarly unsuccessful, with requests to the BIE’s general press inbox going unanswered entirely. Messages sent directly to a BIE spokesperson, where most attempts at making contact ultimately ended up, were granted only sparse replies with no new information.

The last such response from that spokesperson — the BIE’s acting communications director, Klarissa Jensen — was on April 8. At that time, Jensen didn’t offer any specific answers to questions about how far along the search process was, saying instead only that the BIE would be releasing information once “everything has been finalized and confirmed.”

The Journal-World reached out to Jensen to comment on this story via email Friday morning, but she hadn’t replied by that afternoon.

And requests for information made directly to Haskell’s Lawrence campus have for years been routinely referred to the BIE.

Two weeks after that last contact, Haskell has a new president. It’s not clear when exactly that person was selected, nor whether there was a slate of candidates to choose from or any other criteria as to what guided the decision.

At least one local stakeholder sees that lack of communication as a contributor to an overall decline in the experience for students and faculty on Haskell’s campus. Steve Cadue, a former Kickapoo tribal chairman who today is involved in local advocacy for Indigenous people and other underrepresented groups in Lawrence, spoke with the Journal-World earlier this month about some of his concerns for Haskell.

“The United States is failing in its Indian treaty obligations with the demise of Haskell Indian Nations University,” Cadue said.

Cadue described a campus with some buildings in a state of disrepair during recent years, and classrooms with out-of-date technology resources. He said he thought the institution and its professors should be free from government interference, which he said was suppressing academic freedom. He said that faculty’s ability to conduct research, for example, was routinely hampered.

Cadue said other administrative decisions — like when Chenault, the former Haskell president, cut the football program during her tenure — had also been a major blow.

Cadue said lawmakers at the federal level — specifically, Moran’s Indian Affairs Committee — needed to see firsthand what Haskell’s campus is like right now, and how it’s been affected by the dragging bureaucratic process. He said he’d like to see them come to campus for a field hearing, which is a congressional hearing held outside Washington, D.C.

“I have and will have grandchildren and great-grandchildren enrolling at Haskell, and I want quality education for our future Indian leaders,” Cadue said. “That’s not only good for (Native Americans); it’s also beneficial for non-Native society.”


Despite any frustrations with the federal process, Moran told the Journal-World it was clear how important Haskell is to Native Americans around the country, especially given its status as the nation’s only four-year tribal college.

“As a member of the Indian Affairs Committee, I’ve probably visited maybe a dozen tribes in places across the nation — east, west, north, south,” Moran said. “… In almost every setting, there’s somebody there to say that they went to, their son, their mother, went to Haskell.”

Moran said he thought there was great opportunity for Haskell if things were to change; previously, he and others at the federal level have had discussions with Haskell’s leadership about creating an endowment fund to support the school. Those talks, however, stalled because of leadership turnover.

Moran said past Haskell leaders have also expressed interest in operating more independently from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which he said, in his experience, has a “very bureaucratic, slow-moving, difficult, challenging” process for handling its affairs. Moran said he’s interested in Haskell having more independence, too, especially if the university can procure consistent leadership.

Fixing that relationship — that is, between how the BIA functions and how much it allows individual tribal colleges like Haskell to handle their own affairs — is worth more consideration, Moran added.

“I am fearful that the way that the (Bureau of Indian Affairs) operates — and probably the law that surrounds that — was created at a time in which the BIA was seen as the ‘parent,’ a very paternal kind of relationship,” Moran said. “Our Native Americans deserve more than being under the thumb. They need to be able to utilize their own ideas, be creative, support their own education and support Haskell, without being nit-picked or hampered by a bureaucracy that has been around for a long time.”


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