Communication between Haskell Indian Nations University’s administration and the Student Government Association (SGA) has stalled under the pressures of COVID-19 and turbulent administration changes, according to SGA President Rebecca Villalobos. Villalobos says she has not been able to secure a meeting this semester with Acting University President Tamarah Pfeiffer to discuss student concerns despite several emailed attempts. The lack of communication is playing out with two competing ideas for recognizing Haskell’s fall 2021 graduates.
Fall 2021 will be the first Haskell graduate recognization event since Fall 2019. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university forwent celebrations, and community-sourced events took place in lieu of the university’s commencement ceremonies. In May, students Delila Begay and Jared Nally prepared a virtual event streamed through The Indian Leader; in addition, Sacred Ground Haskell, a local community center/campus ministry, held an in-person celebration outdoors.
This summer, Haskell added commencement to the fall academic calendar and welcomed in-person students back to campus for the fall semester. However, despite in-person events once again taking place on campus, the university announced that graduation would be virtual on November 16, a month before the event.
The short notice caught many students and parents off guard—some having made plans months prior, including renting venues and booking travel and hotels. One parent commented on the university’s Facebook announcement, “My daughter has had her graduation cap beaded and ready to walk for a while now. I was excited to watch my daughter walk, and now I don’t get to do so.” Others focused on how the university treats graduation differently from other campus events. One of the fall graduates commented, “We can hold sporting events and powwows without requiring masks, but can’t allow for an in-person graduation ceremony (& maybe require masks) to honor students who have put in years of hard work?”
Haskell Faculty Senate echoed the confusion in Haskell’s COVID safety protocols writing to Pfeiffer that, “The recent email announcing that fall graduation would be online has deepened this divide and has many students (who will be alumni) upset with the school that we cannot hold an in-person graduation while athletics ignores covid protocols in place,” and asked that Haskell Administration reconsider their decision.
As a student body representative, Villalobos and the SGA take their mission statement seriously, “Our mission is simple: to better the HINU experience.” The group has partnered with University of Kansas (KU) Student Body President Niya McAdoo to host an in-person graduate recognition event, “The Recognition Ceremony will take place at Woodruff Hall on KU Campus on December 17th at 10 am.” According to Villalobos, the event has gained a lot of interest from fall graduates, with over 30 students RSVPing to attend.
“Students are the priority,” said Villalobos; “I feel [Haskell’s] priorities are not where they need to be.”
Villalobos acknowledges a tension between SGA and Haskell Administration. This semester, the SGA has challenged the university’s decision to close the Tecumseh gym, lobbied to keep the Student Success Center open, lobbied for meal plans for off-campus students, and petitioned Haskell’s new housing policy to try and allow sophomores and juniors to live on campus again.
“No matter what, I’m doing it; no matter how much heat I get, I’m doing this for the students,” said Villalobos. “If they need help with anything on campus, that’s my job.” Villalobos seeks to answer the question, “How to make students have a better experience?” Her answer is students supporting students. Both Haskell and KU students are coming together to celebrate the accomplishments of the fall graduates, and that’s what Villalobos wants people to see.
Haskell has not released specific details on its virtual graduation; only that local students have an opportunity to have professional photographs taken. Non-local students have not been told how to participate, nor has Haskell told graduates what to expect for their virtual ceremony in 10 days.
Edit: The SGA Recognition Ceremony will have limited attendance and require face masks. Graduates are limited to 3-4 guests. If you have questions about the recognition ceremony, please contact the SGA at email@example.com. (Click Link)