Native Americans reflect on HSU’s troubled past

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

HSU – For intimate reasons of history and geography, Humboldt State University ought to be in the vanguard of Native American studies, a beacon to American Indian students across the country, say campus advocates.

Instead, they rue, for want of an activist administration and a single-minded institutional commitment, Humboldt State’s record of support for Native American education across the decades has been irresolute and incoherent. Worst of all, they mourn, the record is as devoid of vision now as in the past. They mourn that what little

A SIGN at the Native Forum. KLH | Union

A SIGN at the Native Forum. KLH | Union

support is forthcoming is halting and programmatic, bereft of historical and ethnic empathy.

Today’s Native American faculty and students decry what they see as the cruel historical irony that for 100 years, HSU has occupied sacred tribal land while for the most part callously ignoring the special responsibility the campus has to Native American students and their tribal communities, not only educationally but also morally.

A full century after HSU’s founding, “the Rossbacher administration is completely disconnected from students,” says a Native American activist in his junior year who asked that his name be withheld to avoid reprisals by campus officials.

A Shoshone student who is scheduled to graduate in May noted earnestly, “The administration is predominantly, almost entirely white. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is racist, but I would say they are not 21-year-old Native Americans who understand the minds of Native American students or students of color. When they create new structural templates for our programs, they’re not consulting us enough. None of us  – not even the faculty – were consulted when INRSEP was pulled out of the College of Natural Resources and Sciences” in 2013.

(INRSEP stands for Indian Natural Resource, Science and Engineering Program, intended to encourage Native American students to pursue degrees in those disciplines. Until last fall, its director was Jacquelyn Bolman, who was fired abruptly without public explanation. See related story on page A1.)

“When the INRSEP program was part of the College of Natural Resources, it really helped to strengthen the relationships that a lot of the students had with their professors,” the junior pointed out. “That’s why we had such a huge rate of acceptance into research programs and graduate programs. That is still there for the most part, because of the work that Jacquelyn did. But in the next few years, those two programs will be more separate and without someone like Jacquelyn there leading it, that divide will grow again.”

Shorn of the college’s support, INRSEP loses the up to $40,000 in discretionary funding it used to receive from the college for valuable student research projects and undergraduate attendance at science conferences nationwide, the junior stated. Although HSU officials insist INRSEP’s dedicated budget remains the same, he argues that this claim is absurdly beside the point when INRSEP’s transfer to another agency robs it of access to thousands in the college's discretionary budget.

Apart from the fact that students had no say in INRSEP’s demotion, they charge that the far broader problem is that they have scant influence on any top level decision-making, despite HSU’s regularly advertised claim that it is “a student-centered university.”         

“The student input we do bring to the table is minimal,” the Shoshone senior stated, including service on university hiring committees, known on campus as search committees.

The presence of a lone undergraduate on such panels is tokenism, students charge, and they point to what they consider to be an insoluble dilemma. If they refuse to serve as tokens, they have no voice; if they agree to be tokens, they are axiomatically co-opted by the administration and by California State University's executive authoritarianism, which invests campus presidents with overarching power in loco parentis.

The membership of HSU search committees is mostly white because the campus has so few faculty and staff of color, in students' view. “Search committees that are lily white are simply not going to hire that many people of color,” asserts the Native American junior.

Gnarled bureaucratic politics and executive arrogance aside, Native American faculty and students point out that they grapple with unique curricular obstacles. “One of the reasons Native American studies has such a hard time is that what we teach does not generally fit within the mold of other campus disciplines,” explains Marlon Sherman, chair of HSU’s Department of Native American Studies and professor of Federal Indian Law. Many of HSU’s other academic departments resist Native American classes because they do not want interdepartmental competition for resources and undergraduates, he says. “Departments such as History resisted indigenous history classes as rivals for years.”

Another bone of contention is that Native American research techniques differ from customary research methods, according to Sherman. “We advocate activist research. That is, our students are taught to practice outside the classroom what they study. [Student] researchers should do more than study communities; they should ask what forms of help are needed. And the communities should be part of the research, not just the subjects of it. This gives Native American studies their unique identity.”

But that distinct identity flies in the face of highly intense academic pressure for conformity and for bowing to received wisdom, perhaps a key factor in the Rossbacher administration’s decision to fire Bolman as INRSEP’s director. Students certainly believe so.

In the words of one student, “From our perspective, when you look at the facts [of what Bolman reported to federal officials about INRSEP’s demotion], it’s absolutely the truth. The problem wasn’t Bolman, the problem was the administration doesn’t support students of color and it doesn’t support the INRSEP program. Our director was fired for talking about it,” abridging her right to free speech.

Despite the activists’ ire, the Shoshone student said she feels some compassion for Lisa Rossbacher, recognizing that the new president, who took over in July, probably lacked knowledge of the background that led up to the Bolman controversy and, in turn, the unprofessional handling of it.

“I do not think that [the president] was briefed,” either by Chief of Staff Denice Helwig or by other high-ranking administration officials, this student speculated. “I think she was left in the dark. She turned to people she thought she could trust. But before Bolman was fired,” the student emphasized, “the president still had an obligation to consult with us about such an important matter. And the president should have researched what Jacquelyn Bolman brought to the university, and the ways in which she empowered students. She was the heart of our Native American community and the administration ripped that out. We’re replacing that heart with our own, but it’s still traumatic.” 

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