‘We didn’t know what to think’ after university president says his ‘high cheekbones’ merit DNA test
Seventeen students were gathered on an October afternoon at the Old Main building of the University of Arizona. They were writing letters and participating in a photoshoot for their Native SOAR class. Then the university’s president, Robert Robbins, approached them.
Robbins told the students he wasn't there to “pull an Elizabeth Warren” but that he had taken a DNA test to prove his Cherokee ancestry.
Then he continued. The test came back negative. So he planned another because of his “very high cheekbones.”
Tribal identity is a complicated subject that is often confused by the larger society. Tribal leaders are adamant that citizenship and family ties are the key metrics.
“The class, in general, was silent after this happened,” Trinity Norris, Tohono O’odham Nation, remembers. “We didn’t know how to think through everything that was said to us.”
“We’ve heard these stereotypes before but we were upset because it was the highest ranking official at the university who said this to us,” remembers Tony Viola of Pascua Yaqui Tribe, another student who was present.
The students remember the interaction lasting about 10 minutes.
This was not supposed to be on the agenda. The students were there to write letters to Indigenous youth encouraging them to attend the University of Arizona.
Following the incident, the students worked with facilitators from Native Student Outreach Access and Resiliency, or Native SOAR, for short. Amanda Cheromiah, Laguna Pueblo, is volunteer director and Felisia Tagaban, Dine, Tlingit and Filipino, is a Native SOAR graduate assistant and master's student in the university's higher education program.
Nearly two weeks later, the facilitators met with the university president to talk about what had happened. And that was only because they had previously scheduled a meeting to talk about funding for their program. They said that at the meeting, he was “sincere in his desire to formally apologize to the class.”
The facilitators said they had reached out to the university’s leadership team to schedule a date ... only to receive a response saying that the president’s calendar would be full for the rest of the academic year.
Six of the students didn’t hear directly back from the president. So they published their version on social media and asked for a formal apology. The students made several recommendations about what the university can do next.
Monday morning the group’s facilitators met with the university president and members of his leadership team. The meeting lasted about an hour. Students were not present.
“We came from a place of healing,” says Cheromiah, volunteer director of Native SOAR, who was present. She said it was not a contentious meeting. “They realized their shortcomings.”
The facilitators say the president is scheduled to meet with the Native SOAR class Tuesday.
“It was a little bit of a reactive move considering the release of the statement,” says Tagaban, who is a graduate mentor of Native Soar. She says the story has gained the attention of local media. She, along with members of the group, did five media interviews today.
Microaggressions, the students say, happen often. “They happen so frequently that we become numb to them,” says Viola, a senior studying education. “We don’t challenge them and then they are accepted as the norm.”
Earlier this afternoon, the university president sent a statement to Indian Country Today.
“I want to extend my sincerest apology for my comments and their impact,” Robbins said. “I value your [Native students'] presence on our campus and the contribution you make to our academic community and I want you all to feel included and supported.”
Robbins is the 22nd president of the university. He is an internationally recognized cardiac surgeon. Previously he was the president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center and a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.