Courtesy Haskell Indian Nations University
Haskell Indian Nations University School of Business June 2015 graduates.

Haskell: A Great School, And Needs More Money to Stay That Way

Tanya H. Lee

Students at Haskell Indian Nations University have high aspirations, says President Venida Chenault, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, and the university is looking for new resources to educate the tribal leaders of the future. A first step is to convince Congress to pass legislation that would allow Haskell to be able to accept donations without losing any part of the university’s federal appropriation and that would provide federal matching funds for contributions.

Founded in 1884, “in the ‘bad old days of Indian education,’ Haskell was the embodiment of an institution that was going to kill the Indian and save the man,” says Daniel Wildcat, Yuchee Creek, professor of Indigenous and American Indian Studies. “When you recognize that beginning and its intent, the miraculous story of Haskell is that it has emerged now as a truly Native institution committed to indigenous values and intellectual, cultural and spiritual traditions.”

Haskell has historically fulfilled some of the federal government’s treaty and trust obligations, says Chenault. Today it serves approximately 800 students from more than 100 federally recognized tribes and 49 states.

The federal government is Haskell’s only source of funding, aside from nominal student fees. University administrators may not solicit private donations because they are federal employees and any outside funding the university does receive may be subtracted from its federal appropriation.

Haskell is currently funded at $12 million annually. Divide that by the roughly 800 students the university serves and the funding level is $15,000 per student, per year. That amount, says Chenault, must cover almost everything—from professors to lunch, sports to dorms, counseling to labs. Students are responsible for only $725 each in fees per semester.

Other federally-funded institutions of higher education, including historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), the Institute of American Indian Arts and Gallaudet University, do not operate under the same restrictions as Haskell does.

Howard University, an HBCU, in 2013 received a federal appropriation of $234 million, according to the Government Accountability Office. With 10,000 students that comes to $23,400 per student per year.

But, according to the GAO, the 2012 federal appropriation for Howard amounted to only 43 percent of the university’s total revenues. Unlike Haskell, Howard may solicit and receive grants and donations and it has an endowment, which in 2014 was worth $586 million.

Howard is clear on the importance of being able to solicit donations without having them count against its federal appropriation. “Private support makes the difference between being average and being excellent,” the school says on its website.

Haskell is, even among tribal colleges and universities, unique. Its student body is comprised entirely of Native American and Alaska Native students, and that alone draws students. Lori Hasselman, Delaware and Shawnee, a senior in the American Indian Studies program, says, “When making my decision to come here it was definitely the intertribal experience. In class there are so many people from so many different nations, and you get the chance to connect with different cultures here, different tribes. You can’t get that anywhere else.”

Barbara Wolfin, Pit River Nation, is majoring in American Indian Studies with an emphasis on environmental justice. She says, “A lot of professors are Native, they come from their own tribal nations. So they represent their tribal nations and they also bring their own stories. We’re learning directly from these tribal leaders, which is something I’m very grateful for because they’re coming from their own experiences from their own communities and work in their communities, but also they’re leading us and guiding us. I think that is an invaluable gift.”

Haskell is committed to educating tomorrow’s Native leaders, says James Rains, Muskogee Creek, a professor of English. “What we’re doing at Haskell is to reimagine education for American Indian students,” he says. A proposed center for teaching excellence will explore new pedagogies to find which most resonate with students, many of whom will return to their home communities to live and work, says Rains.

Haskell aspires to academic excellence and to becoming a resource for other colleges and universities that educate AI/AN students, Rains explains. “We’ve had a great deal of experience in the classroom working with our students and if we can capture some of that data and really track some of our learning strategies and then report that back, it would be a tremendous service that we could provide to Indian higher education.”

But despite the university’s creativity in making do and stretching its dollars, it is not possible to build a first-rate university in an environment where the newest building on campus, a dorm, was completed in 1998, and the most recent academic building was constructed half a century ago. Labs built decades ago for high school students cannot serve to train college students in the newest STEM fields, says Chenault.

Haskell has established a team to create a new funding model for the university, says Chenault. “We’re not saying we’re going to adopt the Howard model or the IAIA model or any other model. We’re looking at models that will increase the autonomy and authority of the university without compromising our mission or the U.S. government’s trust commitment to tribes.”

For this to work, Congress will need to pass legislation that removes current restrictions on Haskell’s fundraising. “The university is pursuing federal legislation that will authorize us to engage in fundraising without penalty to our appropriations and we’re looking at legislation to establish an endowment association that gives us the opportunity to support growth and greater self-sufficiency,” Chenault says.

An endowment foundation that received matching funding from the federal government would mean Haskell could begin raising—from tribes and others—the $12 million to $13 million it needs to build a state-of-the art science and technology facility to train students to tackle the many serious challenges, such as climate change, protecting tribal banks and casinos from cyber attacks, diversifying economic development strategies, developing agricultural innovations and conducting medical research and interventions, that tribes are facing today.

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