Race on Campus: ‘A Canoe Trying to Change the Direction of a Battleship’ – The Chronicle of Higher Education

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From: Vimal Patel

Subject: Race on Campus: 'A Canoe Trying to Change the Direction of a Battleship'

Welcome to Race on Campus. To help repair its relationship with the state's 11 Native American tribes, the University of Minnesota hired Karen Diver as senior adviser to the president for Native American affairs. Our Vimal Patel reports on how her hire aims to break down the barriers between Native communities and the university.

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When ‘Trust Me’ Is Insufficient

The North Star State’s tribes have many disputes with the University of Minnesota, an institution that, like many colleges, was built on tribal land. These include questions about land ownership, exploitative research, and artifacts displayed in university museums that belong to the tribes.

So university leaders created a new, and rare, position to help settle these issues and repair the relationship with the state’s 11 tribes: a senior adviser to the president for Native American affairs. The new administrator will try to build trust with the tribes and help the university’s own indigenous students succeed.

The hire comes at a time when academe, like all of American society, is reckoning with its racist history. At the University of Minnesota, this includes efforts toward reconciliation with the state’s tribes based on a broad investigation into its history, says President Joan Gabel.

“Just saying ‘trust me’ is wholly insufficient,” Gabel says. “Our commitment is to being a partner with the tribes in how we look at our history, with all of the vulnerability that requires, and doing it together rather than the university doing it on its own and expecting everyone to just receive the information.”

Gabel’s new adviser, Karen Diver, brings credibility to the job. She’s a former tribal elected leader, serving as chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and was appointed by President Obama to serve as his special assistant for Native American affairs. She most recently was director of business development for Native American Advancement Initiatives at the University of Arizona, where she focused on programming around indigenous governance.

Feeling Like an Afterthought

Diver will lead a new office for Native American affairs at Minnesota, joining Tadd Johnson, a professor at the university’s Duluth campus who was hired last year as senior director of American Indian tribal nations relations.

Johnson, a longtime tribal lawyer-turned-academic, says the communication between previous University of Minnesota leaders and the tribes was sparse and superficial, making Native leaders feel like an afterthought. That changed when Gabel became president in 2019 and began holding many meetings with tribal leaders, Johnson says.

“What I was told was, one of the previous presidents just introduced himself to all the tribal leaders, and then went off into a corner and talked to a bunch of white guys,” Johnson says. “If you really want to tick off a bunch of tribal leaders, do that.”

Johnson says he’s excited to soon have a senior-level partner in his quest to push the university to help the tribes, which he says can sometimes feel like “being in a canoe trying to change the direction of a battleship.”

Diver says that colleges should think critically about whether the curriculum appeals to Native students, who are often driven to learn practical skills and to vocations that can help their communities.

“Are we offering the types of degree programs or certificate programs that are desired by tribes?” Diver asks. Healthcare-related programs, for example, could better incorporate research on conditions that are prevalent in Native American communities, like diabetes.

Diver wants Native learners to see themselves as college students. That means reflecting their identities in faculty and staff diversity, bilingual signage, and representation in campus art. She wants to especially focus on the pipeline to college. Graduation rates are abysmal for Native American high-school students in Minnesota — about 51 percent in 2019, lower than any other racial or ethnic group.

“All faculty do field work. Where can we loop in K-12 experiences with field activities?” Diver asks. “How can we build those relationships with local school districts? Postsecondary enrollment options, perhaps, or STEM activities.”

Looking at the World Differently

Gabel, the president, says higher education has a habit of developing programs that reduce barriers in ways that aren’t always culturally sensitive. The creation of Diver’s job is part of an effort to make sure roadblocks are addressed in ways that better reflect the lives of Native learners. The university’s assumptions about these students, Gabel says, “are meaningless if they’re not informed by those with subject-matter expertise or similar lived experiences.”

Johnson, for one, has viewed a big part of his job as “going around and complaining.” Like when he noticed the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs didn’t have a course on Minnesota’s tribal governments. He now teaches that course.

The university developed a master’s program in tribal-resource and environmental stewardship, combining tribal ecological knowledge with western science. Johnson says a forest manager might ask, How many trees can be cut while still maintaining the forest? But a tribe would ask, How do we sustain this forest unharmed for the next seven generations?

“That’s the difference. They look at the world differently. And incorporating that worldview is so important,” Johnson says. “The university could learn a hell of a lot from tribes, especially as we’re entering into this great age of sustainability.”


Read Up.

  • Rob Bonta, California’s attorney general, said in an interview that anti-Asian discrimination is a “full-on state emergency.” Bonta, a Filipino American, said he wants to start a racial-justice bureau to fight white supremacy and biased policing, and to explore slavery reparations. (Los Angeles Times) 
  • At eight parks across the country, heritage centers and exhibits allow people to learn about Native American history and contemporary culture. (The New York Times) 
  • In 1960, the novelist Alexander Chee’s father moved to the U.S. from Korea. In this essay, Chee writes about what his immigrant father taught him about self-defense and toughing out any situation. (GQ) 


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