Students, university reaching agreement

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

HSU – Native American student negotiators and the Rossbacher administration have reached an accord in principle that indigenous students will have priority in the use and stewardship of Humboldt State University’s contested Native American Forum.

Details remain to be worked out, but, provisionally, HSU Native students would be in charge of booking most of the activities, events and classes in the facility.

The tentative agreement was reached during the first round of mediated talks last week between President Lisa Rossbacher and Unified Students of Humboldt.

Return of the Native American Forum to mainly indigenous functions is one of the top demands of Unified Students, the protest and reform group that staged a 35-day occupancy of the building to compel stronger fiscal and policy attention to Native American academic and cultural needs. Unified Students of Humboldt purports to join with all students of color, but its vanguard is Native American.

Students objected to what they considered the increasing encroachment of campus-wide, non-Native American classes and other activities in the forum.

Like the rest of the campus, the building sits on ancestral Wiyot land and its design and architecture are expressly Native American. Its original purpose was to be a dedicated campus home to indigenous students and North Coast tribal nations.   

Student protesters want guarantees that the forum again will be primarily for Native American education and activities.

There is no word as yet if the talks with Rossbacher have begun to deal with another key student demand, renaming the forum after Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman, former director of a popular Native American natural sciences and engineering program.

Bolman’s abrupt dismissal last fall triggered a groundswell of opposition against what students claimed was the unjustified firing of a conscientious whistleblower and yet another chapter in a prolonged series of setbacks to the university’s Native American curriculum and services.

Reformers say they want the final name-change decision left up to their proposed Native American Advisory Council to the campus.

Nor has the mediation taken up an even more controversial demand, that Bolman be reinstated. All along, that has been the linchpin of the Unified Students’ 35-point reform agenda.

Protesters have long since conceded, however, that the administration is adamant that Bolman’s return is out of the question.

Nevertheless, Unified representatives were buoyant after the first round of talks. There are budding indications, they claim, that the administration might be willing to reconsider an umbrella structure called RISS, the Office of Retention and Inclusive Student Success.

Established by the prior Richmond administration and intended to shore up the lagging graduation rates of students of color, the office oversees a trio of Centers of Academic Excellence for African-American, Native American and Latino/a students.

Student reformers deride RISS as a superfluous bureaucratic overlay with no clout, and as an insult to the sensibilities of people of color.

“Why is RISS color-segregated and not based on students’ career interests, like INRSEP and ITEPP were initially designed?” student activist Merien Townsel asked rhetorically in a recent email. She referred to two highly popular, career-based academic curricula, the Indian Natural Resource, Science and Engineering Program (Bolman’s former bailiwick) and the Indian Tribal Education and Personnel Program.

The strong sense of promise expressed by student negotiators is counterbalanced by a feeling in some quarters that, however forthcoming and flexible Rossbacher is in navigating the talks, she and her administration are missing in action in communicating with the campus and the general public.

“We get no updates, no discussion from anybody in the administration about the president’s objectives,” a faculty member commented last week in a phone interview. “This campus claims to be all about openness and transparency, but there are no presidential letters, no community forums, there is no dialogue with any of us about what guidelines are being followed. The president is invisible! Yes, the discussions are closed, that’s the rule, but the normal protocols for mediation are not being followed. By rights, the sides should be sharing progress reports on how the negotiations are getting along, what’s been settled, what remains. With this administration, you wouldn’t even know a mediation was going on.”

In sharp contrast to this criticism, Rossbacher has been named one of six California State University presidents to receive a 2015 Trailblazer Award, which honors the achievements and leadership of women in academia.

The annual award recognizes women who are pioneers in their field and the 2015 recognition marks the first time the honor has been conferred on a group of six women.

Rossbacher is the first woman president in HSU’s 100-year history.

Disagreements aside about the strengths and weaknesses of Rossbacher’s leadership, the new president is bound to be tested when the negotiations begin grappling with the deep-seated structural issues that affect under-represented students.

Referring to RISS, Townsel said, “In order for the university to make sure diversity and inclusion consist of more than a corner office and hollow rhetoric in ‘Humboldt Now’ [the campus website], the spatial and social isolation of all students must be addressed. There is diversity here in the way whiteness is constructed, but for students and staff of color, diversity on this campus is lacking [for the] total population as well as for programming and resources.”

She added, “True and total diversity goes far beyond perceived ‘acceptance’ of distinct groups and ideologies; it encompasses the exploration and expression of the culturally-unfamiliar and encourages the inclusion and understanding of others. Institutional disengagement will always be a continuing source of discontent for all students, but a more striking one for people of color.”

Unified Students liaison Sarah Caligiuri said in a telephone interview that no date had been set for the next mediation session with Rossbacher, pending schedule arrangements.

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