Ronald Graham has been removed as president of Haskell Indian Nations University after a tumultuous year of clashing with students and faculty members and allegations that he violated their civil rights and disregarded shared governance policies and practices.
The Bureau of Indian Education, the federal agency that oversees Haskell, a tribal college in Kansas, dismissed Graham last week after an internal investigation of his conduct. The bureau also announced that Tamarah Pfeiffer, the bureau’s chief academic officer, is now serving as acting president, according to the Lawrence Journal-World.
An email sent to faculty and staff members announcing Pfeiffer's new role described her as "a proven leader with the ability to identify and maximize employee strengths, motivate departments, inspire teams, and implement a sound vision to achieve educational success."
Graham declined to discuss his removal, but in an earlier statement he made to the Journal-World last week after his dismissal, Graham said, as a United States Army veteran who swore to protect the Constitution, he would never “intentionally” violate students’ and faculty members’ First Amendment rights.
“I love Haskell, most of its employees, and this community,” Graham wrote to the Journal-World. “I wanted to take a moment to thank all of those in support and it has been my honor to serve.”
Graham, a former dean at Victor Valley College in California and a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, was hired as president of Haskell in May 2020 after the institution was led by interim presidents for more than a year, the Journal-World reported.
Graham was first accused of suppressing campus speech in October, after he sent a threatening “directive” to Jared Nally, editor in chief of Haskell's student newspaper, The Indian Leader. Graham ordered Nally to stop routine reporting activities and threatened to impose sanctions under the student code of conduct. Graham sent a similar “directive” to Haskell faculty members in March, which said employees may not engage in “defaming, slanderous, damaging and inflammatory” behavior and said “derogatory opinions” about administrators are not protected by academic freedom. The directive was in response to faculty members criticizing university administrators in media comments and on social media, the Journal-World reported.
The university’s Faculty Senate unanimously voted to declare no confidence in Graham in April, citing concerns about his stifling of free speech by faculty and students and accusing Graham of failing to uphold shared governance practices. Among the complaints outlined in the Faculty Senate's no-confidence resolution were accusations that Graham excluded faculty and academic deans from discussions about new degree programs and course and faculty schedules. He also did not call any meetings of the university's Board of Regents, though there is typically one meeting each semester, according to the resolution. (The Office of the President at Haskell is responsible for convening regents meetings.)
“President Graham during his nearly one year tenure has made no effort to engage the Haskell faculty in the legitimate practice of shared governance and has expressed the opinion he did not need to meet with the Haskell Faculty Senate,” the resolution said. “Graham has demonstrated disdain for collegial academic culture and the unique Indigenous character of Haskell, as evidenced in his disregard for academic freedom, the free speech rights of our students and faculty, and by the autocratic manner in which he seeks to run, not lead, Haskell.”
Graham is also a defendant in an ongoing federal lawsuit filed by Nally against the former president, university and Bureau of Indian Education, in which Nally claims his First Amendment rights and those of The Indian Leader were violated.
Katlyn Patton, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, the civil liberties watchdog group that is representing Nally, said claims in the lawsuit against Graham in his individual capacity will stand despite his departure as president. Graham, the university and bureau officials have until June to respond to Nally’s lawsuit, Patton said.
Nally, a senior at Haskell, said Graham’s removal is a recognition of his problematic leadership but not an end-all, be-all solution to larger problems at Haskell. His lawsuit takes aim at written policies in the student code of conduct that he and FIRE argue directly limit students’ free speech, including a statement that says “expression of all views is permitted, consistent with” Haskell’s values of communication, integrity, respect, collaboration, leadership and excellence.
“That will continue to be something that looms over students and their free expression rights,” Nally said. Graham’s dismissal “doesn’t mean that the code of conduct won’t be weaponized in that way again. He may have been the bad actor that brought attention to all of this, but there’s work that needs to be done to restore free speech and expression rights.”
Pfeiffer, the new acting president, declined a request for an interview and directed questions to a Bureau of Indian Education spokesperson, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Nally said faculty members and students have shown solidarity and support for one another during the past year amid the administrative turmoil. The Indian Leader has taken on the responsibility for keeping the campus informed because university administrators have failed to do so, Nally said. He noted that students found out about Graham’s dismissal only through faculty members who received an email and local news reports.
“Still nothing has been said to students,” he said, adding that the lapses in shared governance and lack of involvement of the regents have left students, faculty and staff members feeling excluded and in the dark.
“There haven’t really been checks and balances,” Nally said. “There’s a lot of ways we stepped up to fill those roles.”