LAWRENCE, Kan. - Haskell Indian Nations University’s first female president, Karen Swisher, will retire after the fall semester.
An 11-year Haskell employee, Swisher served as president of the university for the past seven years. Her career in education has spanned the past 40 years.
“This is a really good job; you have to have a different frame of mind, a different approach to this job because it is an interesting situation with an educational institution within the federal government bureaucracy.
“So you have to approach it with your eyes wide open, knowing that there are going to be interesting relationships and challenges,” Swisher said. “It is not the typical college or university in that respect.”
Swisher, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was the director of the Center of Indian Education at Arizona State University before her move to Haskell.
Swisher said the most frustrating part of her career as a public servant is to be a steward of the public’s money and have to be accountable.
Haskell’s overall budget has lagged behind the rate of yearly inflation for the past several years. The board of regents, composed of appointed tribal leaders from across the country, decided at its most recent meeting to encourage American Indian associations and tribes to lobby for and promote the university. The purpose would be to sell the school and not merely beg for money, according to Gil Vigil, governor of Taos Pueblo and president of the board.
Haskell, along with other federal agencies, experienced budget problems. Some layoffs were required at Haskell, and an increase in fees was implemented last year to offset faculty salaries.
Swisher said that the university had not “experienced budget cuts per se; we had some rescissions, no cuts. We haven’t had an increase in funding, but remained at the same level, but technically not cut.”
Because of her status as a federal employee, Swisher could not discuss the budget at any length. She did say that the university has been a good steward of the money and had done a “phenomenal job.”
“We looked at the priorities and focused on what was important and provided a curriculum that is good for student’s preparation,” Swisher said.
Swisher oversaw a strategic five-year plan that is used on a daily basis. The plan started in 2003.
Haskell was awarded accreditation for the next 10 years, the result of the strategic plan, Swisher said. She said the strategic plan and the accreditation were two of the most important accomplishments of her tenure.
Swisher started out at Haskell in turbulent times; three students were killed in a one-car rollover accident and the Haskell Foundation was under investigation the year she took office.
“As a result of the foundation crashing, we took over many grants that they had been managing up to that point, mostly fiscal management,” she said. “Everyone stepped up to the plate and took over the management of grants.”
The target number for enrollment at Haskell is 900. At times, enrollment has exceeded 1,000.
This year, Swisher said she was proud of the number of students who were graduated – 187, the most since the baccalaureate program was started during the 1993 – 94 school year. The first baccalaureate degrees were in elementary education. Since the university’s first year as a four-year institution, more programs have been added to the four-year degree curriculum.
“I won’t take credit for success,” Swisher said. “It goes completely to faculty and staff. They really, truly know the meaning of being a public servant and work tirelessly to pay attention to students and advancement of success. It is at the core of our mission here.”
When Swisher left ASU for Haskell, some her colleagues thought she was crazy, she said.
“I came to Haskell because I thought I could contribute something so significant, be in a place where everyone knows the mission and knows why we are here,” she said. “It’s a place for Native students and a place for policy, and to focus on self-determination and provide leadership for Indian country.”
Swisher said it will be nice to have time for herself and do things like read for pleasure, have the freedom to travel, and work in the yard and garden for longer than just weekends.