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President Chenault Describes Haskell in One Word: Family

On January 12, Dr. Venida S. Chenault, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas, was appointed as the new president of Haskell.

Marred by claims of mismanagement, and suffering from deep federal cuts—courtesy of the government’s broad-sweeping sequester—Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, has had a tough few years.

But, on January 12, Dr. Venida S. Chenault, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas, was appointed as the new president of Haskell and is already headlong into her preparations for the future, she said.

Chenault, who succeeded former president Chris Redman, has been associated with Haskell for 21 years beginning in 1991 as a faculty member teaching social work, American Indian studies and addiction until 2004. In December of that same year, she was named vice president of academic affairs.

Indian Country Today Media Network recently spoke with Chenault about her plans for the future of Haskell, amid substantial federal cuts.

According to the Lawrence Journal-World, the university’s budget is funded by both federal appropriations and numerous grants, totaling between $18 million and $20 million per year.

As a result of the federal sequester, Haskell lost about $635,000 in federal appropriations for the current fiscal year, prompting administrators to rely on more adjunct faculty and freeze certain teaching positions.

Today, Haskell’s total appropriation is less than $14.5 million.

Still, Chenault is optimistic about the future of Haskell and lauds the university’s faculty as more committed than most.

What are your plans for Haskell in the coming year, two years, ten years?

I think the first order of business is to begin the process of restructuring ourselves. We have a HLC (Higher Learning Commission) accreditation visit coming up in April of 2015, so there are projects that are needed as we engage in that planning and preparation, but as you look at the bigger picture of the university, in the economic times that we’re in, we recognize that these kinds of times require a realignment of resources and really identifying what is our core mission, and our core mission is providing a quality post-secondary experience for our students. Many organizations, including large colleges and universities, are really having to drill down on how you realign resources during times of shrinking revenue in order to meet your core mission. Much of the work is centered around that larger discussion.

With reference to Haskell and its past, what hasn’t worked that you plan on changing?

I think we’re looking at all of our programs. We’ve been engaged in that process over the past several years. As funding declines we’ve had to make some very tough choices about the degree programs that we offer as we look out to the future and try to think about what the needs of Indian country are in the future. We’re certainly gearing up in that direction. We can begin expanding the discussion about the importance of identifying multiple revenue streams in order to fund our organization. Those efforts are going to be important, obviously, if you want to offer the array of classes and degree programs that a university would offer. You need funding to do that, and you’ve got to have some stable and consistent funding. And so we’re looking at strategies to generate the revenue that’s needed. We’re in the early stages and we’ll continue to work with the foundation and identify tribes that want to invest in higher-ed opportunities for our students. Pretty much everything is on the table.

Haskell Indian Nations University

With reference to retention and graduation rates, is there something you plan to bring to the table to increase those?

Well, in 2010, I acquired some grant funding and we established the Haskell Success Center, which is focused on retention. And we’ve got a staff working in that office to provide a range of services to students, and we’ve had really excellent results. For example, in the August 13 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Haskell was identified as number two in the tribal college system of minorities serving colleges with the best graduation rate, and so we’re going to continue to work on improving our graduate rate.

We certainly recognize that our overall retention rates need to improve as well, so there are multiple factors that contribute to retention that we recognize need to be targeted. Seventy percent of our students typically pursue associate degrees here, so we want to look at all of the factors that impact retention. We just have piloted a first-year-experience program this past year to see what the impacts of the first year experience program are on retention, and we’ll be modifying that orientation curriculum and course after this year to continuously improve what it is that we’re doing until we see much higher rates.

How are you generating interest in Haskell, even with the significant financial cuts?

For much of our history, students come to Haskell because of family and friends who have attended Haskell. We’ve relied on word-of-mouth advertising for our university, but with the expansion of tribal colleges and the opportunities that are available to students we also recognize that we need to market differently and not just rely on word of mouth in order to attract the students who do best here at our university. So, we’re going to have to look at a different marketing campaign—that’s another issue that needs to be addressed.

Our rate of adjunct (professor) use really has not been as high as other institutions up until this point in time. We’ve had a pretty stable and one of the most highly qualified faculty in the tribal colleges. I’m talking in terms of the number of faculty with PhDs and a master’s degrees in the area of which they’re teaching. We’re also at the cusp of a high rate of projected retirement for that workforce, so we know that we’re going to need to begin recruiting the next generation of scholars and researchers and faculty who are passionate and committed about working with the population of students that we work with.

So, you’ve got these kinds of dynamics within dynamics that are occurring and we have to be better poised to respond to them. Haskell is still one of the best bargains out there in terms of cost. We will be raising fees to about $712 a semester next fall, but when you look at the cost of tuition and fees at mainstream universities, $700 is an exceptional cost in order to get a quality education and experience.

So, tuition is going up by how much?

It’s $210 now and it’s going up to $700 in the fall. Even as you look at the cost of tuition across the tribal college system, we’re still at the top in terms of affordability. That ensures access for a whole lot of students who, for many reasons, aren’t able to pursue higher-ed.

What is your tentative plan to locate the new generation of academics to teach at Haskell and imbue the Native students there?

Probably just doing what we’re doing right now—having this conversation. What attracted me to Haskell way back when was a college president that was talking in the press about embracing the cultural knowledge and wisdom and finding a place for our elders on this campus. That was very intriguing for me to hear a president at Haskell engaged in those kinds of discussions, and I wanted to be a part of that. I think that there are many talented Native academics out there.

I hear from folks all the time when I travel: “I would love to come and work at Haskell. Let me know when opportunities come up.” And I would like to put a call out to those potential faculty to come and teach in our university. We’re competing with institutions where the typical teaching load is two classes a semester and time off for research and time off for service and university responsibilities. By the nature of how we’re organized, we attract a different caliber of tribal faculty, and it’s a caliber of faculty who are so committed and passionate about their work that they’re willing to roll up their sleeves. Instead of teaching two classes they’re teaching four.

It comes back to that passion. Do you want to make a difference in the lives of Native students? And are you willing to do the hard work that’s necessary in order to accomplish that? So, I think that there are many emerging young faculty and researchers that would love to be at a place like this and make a difference.

What do you, personally, bring to Haskell that maybe other presidents didn’t that makes you unique in this position?

I think that my life story and experience has been about overcoming adversity. I’ve accomplished what I’ve accomplished because I had a mother, no matter what our economic situation was, who believed and recognized the importance that education could have in opening up doors of opportunity. From a very, very, very humble beginning, I began my education all the way through. She encouraged us, all of her children, to “don’t give up. Go to school. School’s important.” I know what it’s like to struggle. I know what it’s like to not have. I know what it’s like to never have a high school counselor or anybody beyond your mother saying, “You need to go to college.”

I started my education career here at Haskell, and that experience helped me to understand that I had potential, despite all of the social indicators that society often uses to label people as going nowhere. It helped me to understand that I could do this. It was a real opportunity for me. I started here. I didn’t graduate here. I came back after I left Haskell and picked up another semester and launched from there. So, I know the power that education has and the experience of going through that process with other people that you don’t have to constantly explain yourself to because they understand, and I want other people to have that experience.

I’m the first president who has attended Haskell. I’ve had the experience of working with students and seeing those lights come on. And hearing back from them throughout their career: “I’ve graduated with my bachelor’s. I’ve graduated with my master’s. I’m going into a doctoral program. I’m working for my tribal government. I’m an attorney for my tribe’s supreme court.” So, that demonstrates for me our success and I just want to make sure that that door of opportunity is kept open for all of those other students out there that maybe don’t even realize how much they have to offer or the potential that they really have, and I want Haskell to be that place for them.

In one word, describe Haskell at its core, its nucleus, its spirit.