Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The next leader of University of Alaska Anchorage has a controversial history with tribes.

The University of Alaska Anchorage announced former Gov. Sean Parnell as the new chancellor of the campus. Wednesday’s announcement means the university passed over the lone Indigenous candidate in Pearl Kiyawn Nageak Brower, one of eight finalists. Brower is the former president of the tribal college Ilisagvik in Utqiagvik.

“Sean brings passion for our mission, a deep commitment to Alaska and a desire for all Alaskans to have access to higher education,” university President Pat Pitney said in a statement.

“My decision was driven by these qualities and by the support he received from the search committee and the University of Alaska Anchorage community, especially from our students,” Pitney wrote. “I also recognize Sean’s ability to bring people together and work collaboratively in combination with his knowledge of Alaska leaders, businesses, and economy. I believe he is uniquely positioned to lead UAA in providing the programs that support Anchorage and Alaska’s workforce needs and economic growth.”

Parnell, a Republican, was governor of Alaska from 2009 to 2014. During his five years in office, his administration set up policies, waged lawsuits, and filed court appeals (see examples listed below), to oppose Alaska Native people and Alaska tribes' rights. The state settled or lost lawsuits over its opposition to tribal court jurisdiction, subsistence rights, and tribes putting land into trust (protected) status. 

Also, in 2008, a federal court determined the state had violated voting rights under Parnell’s tenure as lieutenant governor, the office in charge of Alaska elections.

University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor and former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, (photo courtesy of University of Alaska Anchorage).

In a statement on that case, American Civil Liberties Union attorney James Tucker said, “since Alaska became covered by the Voting Rights Act over 30 years ago, it has viewed its obligations as optional and nothing more than an administrative inconvenience to be set aside for higher priorities.” The federal court’s ruling in the case, he said, tells the state “enough is enough. Yup’ik voters are entitled to language assistance for every election, not merely when it is convenient for election officials.”

In the month’s before Parnell lost re-election, he was criticized for his response to widespread sexual harassment and abuse in the National Guard. He didn’t start an investigation until four years after three clergymen told him about the problem. Alaska has among the nation’s highest rates of violence against women, and disproportionately against Alaska Native women.

On Wednesday, the university outlined ways Parnell has supported higher education — through creation of a performance-based scholarship program, and creation of a $400 million endowment to fund the scholarships and needs-based grants for higher education and job training.

“He understands the range of issues facing UAA and has proven skills in diversifying and generating revenue,” Pitney said. “He will help stabilize our budget through building UAA’s reputation and expanding enrollment and fundraising.”

In the past few years, the University of Alaska has been hit with substantial budget cuts and declining enrollment.

(Related: Indigenizing the universities)

“I am honored to be appointed as chancellor of such a dynamic university and I am committed to UAA, the UA System and to Alaskans,” Parnell said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to working with the exemplary faculty -- the backbone of any university -- and to supporting our students by clearing more paths of opportunity for them. Together, along with UAA’s great staff, alumni, and with the support of the Anchorage, Mat-Su, Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and Prince William Sound communities, we’ll move UAA forward as Alaska’s engine for workforce development and creative innovation.”

Alaska Federation of Natives president Julie Kitka, in an email, said “AFN congratulates Sean Parnell on his selection today as the new chancellor of UAA. We look forward to a vibrant and innovative university advancing on its strong foundation.”

The University of Alaska system recently launched an Alaska Native Success Initiative to improve Native participation, representation, and success. Nearly 20 Alaska Natives from across the state are serving on the initiative’s steering committee. It will develop baseline data and a plan for the University Board of Regents’ consideration.

Parnell was lieutenant governor under Gov. Sarah Palin and assumed the governorship when she resigned to run for U.S. vice president. He was elected to a full term as governor in 2010. In the 2014 election, Palin supported his opponent, Independent Bill Walker, who won. Byron Mallott, a Tlingit Indian, shared the Walker ticket and became the first Alaska Native to serve in statewide office when he was elected lieutenant governor.

Previously, Parnell served in the state legislature from 1992 to 2000. More recently he has worked as an attorney in private practice.

Parnell will take his new position on June 12.

For more information, see:

Nick v. Bethel

Kaltag Tribal Council v. Jackson, 344 F. App'x 324

Akiachak Native Community, et al. v. Department of Interior, et al. - Native American Rights Fund

Federal Court Denies Alaska and US Motions for Reconsideration in Akiachak Native Community v. Jewell

State of Alaska v. Native Village of Tanana - Native American Rights Fund.

Simmonds v. Parks - Native American Rights Fund

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This report has been updated with details about the lawsuits