University of Oklahoma President David L. Boren drew praise last week when he swiftly moved to punish members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon caught singing a racist song -- much like he did when members of the same fraternity in 1996 stole a tepee and placed it on a sorority house lawn.
But since the university’s scattered student services offices in the 1990's merged into a reorganized Center for Student Life, critics of Boren’s leadership say the communities for American Indian students that flourished during the late 80's and early 90's have “dwindled to almost nothing.”
Amid national attention to the challenges facing black students at Oklahoma, American Indians -- one of the largest minority groups in the state -- have questioned key decisions at the institution. The university declined to comment for this story.
The American Indian and Native Alaskan student population now faces a new challenge. Beginning next academic year, the university will no longer offer the American Indian Scholars Scholarship, a tuition waiver for out-of-state students with ties to Oklahoma’s 38 federally recognized tribes, said Lindy B. Waters Jr., associate director of student life.
The change will make attending the university more than twice as expensive for those students. Oklahoma residents this year pay an estimated $9,494.50 for tuition, excluding certain fees, while out-of-state residents pay $22,268.50.
While enrollment numbers for American Indian and Native Alaskan students already appear to have plummeted in the last five years, the decline can likely be attributed to the new federal race and ethnicity categories that colleges and universities began using in fall 2010. Those revisions introduced the “two or more races” category to the questionnaire, and a 2012 analysis by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that people self-identifying as “white and American Indian or Alaska Native” was the fourth most frequent combination.
In Oklahoma, students identifying as American Indian or Native Alaskan and another race or ethnicity are even more common. Oklahoma State University appears to now enroll 659 fewer students in that category than it did in fall 2010, but according to a university spokesman, the population has actually increased. More than 50 percent of those identifying as biracial check the boxes for white and American Indian or Alaska Native, the spokesman said.
But American Indian and Native Alaskan enrollment at OU still lags behind statewide demographics. In fall 2014, those students made up only 4 percent of the on-campus population, the second smallest group by ethnicity or race at the university -- even though the state has the second-largest population in the country. About one in every 11 Oklahomans identifies as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to a 2013 estimate. Another 6.3 percent of the university population self-identified as belonging to two or more races or ethnicities, compared to 5.8 percent statewide.
In comparison, Hispanics only slightly outnumber American Indians and Alaska Natives in Oklahoma, but account for 8.1 percent of the OU student population. Since fall 2010, the number of students identifying as Hispanic alone has more than doubled, from 1,036 to 2,197.
'An Issue Well Worth Dying For'
American Indian and Alaska Native students have helped shape the treatment of minority students at OU. In 1994, when the first tepee incident took place, outrage from the American Indian community and scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights eventually prompted the university to revise its Student Code to include language on racial harassment.
Raising a tepee in front of the Bizzell Memorial Library marked the start of American Indian Heritage Week at the university. Each night of the celebrations, students from different campus organizations would hold a vigil and sleep in the tepee.
On March 14, 1994, when members of the American Indian Student Association held their vigil, six members of Phi Kappa Psi “ran around inside the tepee, shouting and slapping it. One man urinated on the tepee,” The Oklahoman reported. Two weeks later, someone spray painted the words “Navajos go home” on a statue of former university president William B. Bizzell.
The tepee incident occurred at an awkward time for a university in the middle of a leadership transition. President Richard L. Van Horn had announced in October 1993 that he would step down at the end of the academic year, but the Board of Regents wouldn’t name Boren -- then a U.S. senator -- president-designate until late April.
That summer, Stephen Selkirk, president of the American Indian Student Association, went on a 58-day hunger strike.
“My whole purpose is to call attention to what many people perceive to be the University of Oklahoma’s recurring pattern of dismissing Native American concerns,” Selkirk told The Oklahoman 43 days in. “If it comes to having to die out here, then this is an issue that is well worth dying for.”
It took five months before the administration -- then in the form of interim president J. R. Morris -- apologized to the American Indian community. Although the six fraternity members were punished, they negotiated with the university to not have their sanctions disclosed, according to The Associated Press.
In addition to Selkirk’s hunger strike and students protests, the university’s response prompted members of the campus community to file a grievance with the Office for Civil Rights.
“We just felt there was a racially hostile environment at that time, and we needed some type of intervention from an entity outside the university,” a former staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is a public employee, said. “It just didn’t feel like it was going to ever be really put to rest.”
When the Board of Regents in September 1995 unanimously adopted the revision, it noted that “Discussions with members of the American Indian community at the university surfaced their concern that racial harassment is not specifically listed in the Student Code and should be noted to make the student population aware of this,” according to board minutes.
Less than a year later, in March 1996, when the second tepee incident occurred, the university suspended three SAE members -- arguably a harsher punishment for a lesser infraction.
Creating a 'Level Playing Field'
Current and former university employees struggled to point to a single explanation for why the American Indian and Alaska Native student population doesn’t reflect Oklahoma’s demographics.
The former staffer criticized the university’s decision to consolidate the many offices of student services that catered to specific groups -- one for African-American students, one for American Indian and Alaska Native students, one for students with disabilities, and so on -- into a Center for Student Life. In the early 2000's, the unit known as minority recruitment services became diversity enrichment programs, according to a university spokeswoman.
Those changes weakened the many initiatives created in the 80's and 90's, including the American Indian Roundtable and a special graduation ceremony and visitation day for American Indian students, the staffer said.
“If the playing field was level and we all started at the same point, I would say, yes, let’s just have general programs for the University of Oklahoma community,” the staffer said. “But the playing field isn’t level, and every student does not start at the same point. Some people need a little more helping getting to where everyone else is.”
In 1997, the university named Jeffery L. Hale its first director of the Center for Student Life. Before the reorganization, Hale said, student services for minority groups “tended to be scattered on the outskirts of campus, mostly unnoticed except by the student population and alumni and faculty that they served.” Bringing them all together under the roof of the student union was an attempt to create “parity,” he said.
“It generally was an effort to elevate and create a sense of community and try to address this perception that certain student groups were marginalized either because of physical location of resources for the program,” Hale, now the president of Northeast Oklahoma A&M College, said. “During my three years as the director, I felt like there was lots of progress made.”
Jake New contributed to this article.
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