Editorial: Haskell graduation should remind us we can do more for the university

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Congratulations to the 2019 graduates of Haskell Indian Nations University.

This time of year is special in Lawrence as so many people take that next step in their lives and careers. It also is a great time to hear some stories. Rare is it for a college graduate to not have at least one good story to tell about his or her time in Lawrence. Whether parents want to hear that story is a different matter.

There is one brief story, however, that local leaders who want Lawrence to grow and prosper ought to hear. New Haskell graduate Caroline Wiseman told it recently as part of a Journal-World article. Wiseman came to Haskell from Anchorage, Alaska. Wiseman was frank in her assessment of what she found upon her arrival. She didn’t like the place. The climate and terrain were different, and it simply didn’t feel like home. After completing her sophomore year, she decided she wasn’t going to come back. But then …

“I got to thinking ‘I should go back,'” she recalled. “There was nowhere else I could graduate debt free.”

Wiseman, like every Haskell student, attends the university tuition free. Wiseman said she paid only $715 a semester for room and board at Haskell.

Lawrence is home to a university that offers, essentially, free four-year degrees. Think about how unique that makes Lawrence. In a time when so many worry about the cost of a college education, when so many worry about the world turning into a place of haves and have-nots, Lawrence has an institution that honestly can say money will not be what holds you back from getting a degree and expanding your horizons.

Surely there is more we can do to tout that message.

This year, approximately 150 students got that tuition-free degree at last week’s graduation ceremony. To put that in perspective, almost every high school in the area has more graduates than that. Yes, Haskell and its tuition-free education is not open to everyone. Students must be able to show they are an enrolled member of a federally recognized American Indian or Alaska native tribe, or be able to prove they are at least a “one-fourth total degree Indian blood direct descendant” of a tribal member.

Even with those admission restrictions, there can be so many more students at Haskell than what the university has today. Local leaders should do what they can to help grow that enrollment. It will be a benefit to those who receive the degrees, and more Haskell students will provide needed diversity in our community. But more selfishly, a larger Haskell enrollment ultimately benefits Lawrence’s economy through more jobs at Haskell.

Haskell receives its funding from the federal government. In that sense, Haskell is an excellent example of economic development in that it brings new money into our community. The entire country pays for Haskell’s operations, but many of the dollars go into the pockets of area residents who work at the school. That is a winning formula for Lawrence.

Yes, federal funding is always precarious, but it is unlikely that the federal government simply is going to walk away from its obligations of tribal education. But it is likely that the federal government will let Haskell wither if no one fights for a different outcome.

Lawrence leaders should take up that fight. They should spend more time lobbying federal officials for greater funding for Haskell, and local leaders should do more to directly encourage Native Americans to attend Haskell. Would it be unreasonable for a Lawrence delegation — maybe even funded by the city or the county — to travel to some of the Indian reservations across the country to tout the benefits of Lawrence and Haskell?

If you answered that it would be unreasonable for local government to spend money on such an effort, why? How much do Lawrence and Douglas County spend to tout economic development resources such as a business park or the attributes of our labor force? Such promotion is fine, but remember this: Countless communities have business parks and good labor forces. Not many have a university that will give you a free education.

Every time we fail to recognize the uniqueness of Haskell Indian Nations University, we miss an opportunity.


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