Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas. Photo: Gen. Quon

Embattled president of Haskell University remains on campus despite 'abusive' behavior

By Acee Agoyo

With additional reporting by Kevin Abourezk

The embattled leader of Haskell Indian Nations University has been removed from her position at the federally-operated tribal college but will continue to work on campus despite being accused of bullying and intimidating others.

Venida Chenault is no longer serving as president of Haskell, a spokesperson at the Department of the Interior confirmed on Tuesday, after the campus paper broke the news. The Indian Leader first reported that she accepted a "upper-level management position" within the Bureau of Indian Education.

That position turns out to be a program analyst at the BIE's Office of Research, Policy and Post-Secondary Education, the spokesperson told Indianz.Com. And Chenault will be based in Lawrence, Kansas, on the very same campus where she was accused of creating an "abusive" environment over the last five years.

"After five years of serving as President of Haskell Indian Nations University, Dr. Venida Chenault has accepted a position with the Bureau of Indian Education," a statement from Interior read. "She will be serving in the Office of Research, Policy and Post-secondary Education."

When asked where the position is located, the spokesperson said that Chenault "will be on the Haskell campus."

Daniel Wildcat, the acting president of Haskell, also issued a statement on Tuesday, following The Indian Leader's report. Though he said the BIE took "corrective action" in response to "alleged misconduct" he did not explain what happened to Chenault, or disclose that she will be staying on campus in her new role.

"Our Haskell community is strong. We serve and represent resilient American Indian and Alaska Native Peoples," Wildcat, who is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said in a statement posted on social media. "In doing so, all of us in the Haskell community will continue to honor our successful past and present accomplishments, and work towards our university’s bright future."

But Aaron Circle Bear, a former Haskell student, isn't sensing progress. He said he was expelled from the university barely a month after he spoke to federal investigators about the way he was treated by Chenault.

"I'm glad to see that she's been removed from the position but I'm still disheartened," Circle Bear, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told Indianz.Com on Tuesday. "She's still going to be on campus."

According to Circle Bear, Chenault and one of her family members, who also works at Haskell, retaliated against him after he lodged several grievances. He told Indianz.Com that he raised complaints about black mold in dorm rooms, manipulation of crime statistics and fear and intimidation by top-level administrators against employees and students.

"She has negatively affected peoples' lives and for her to remain on campus, to me that tells me the BIA really isn't that interested in solving problems," Circle Bear said of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose senior political leadership oversees the BIE.

"The BIA can't get rid of her -- because if they fire her, then they are admitting some type of fault, which could possibly open the government up to further litigation," he said.

"They've just given her a new title and it's going to be business as usual," added Circle Bear, who currently works in law enforcement in Kansas.

Venida Chenault, far left, is the former president of Haskell Indian Nations University, a federally-funded institution in Lawrence, Kansas. Standing next to her is John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Both are seen at Haskell University's spring commencement ceremony on May 18, 2018. Photo: Haskell Success & White Cone Production

Some of Circle Bear's complaints were in fact substantiated by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of the Interior which investigated numerous allegations of mismanagement raised by students, faculty and administrators. A report released last November described Chenault's behaviors as "abusive" and said that subordinates and others felt "bullied" and "intimidated" by her.

"When asked if she was part of the problem, the President replied, 'Well apparently I am,'" the OIG report stated, without identifying Chenault as the person in the position.

The investigation also showed that Haskell underreported crime statistics -- including incidents of sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, stalking and harassment -- after Chenault came on board. In 2014, the OIG found that there were 19 reportable incidents yet the university only disclosed 3. In 2015, the 32 reportable incidents came across as just 5 in Haskell's official documents.

Chenault further admitted that the university mishandled multiple incidents of sexual assault. In one case, she personally acknowledged that she "treated an allegation of sexual assault differently because the victim was male," the OIG discovered.

"Thirdly, the President admitted Haskell mishandled allegations an instructor had raped a student and, in the process, likely re-victimized the student," the OIG report stated.

Haskell Indian Nations University misreported crimes on its campus in Lawrence, Kansas, according to the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Source: Investigation of Misconduct Allegations at Haskell Indian Nations University

On the same day Indianz.Com published a story about the report, the BIE announced that Chenault had been "detailed" to another position within the agency. When asked for further information about the assignment, however, Interior did not respond.

Chenault, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, became president of Haskell in January 2014. She almost immediately faced questions about her leadership, with a number of complaints centering on alleged nepotism involving her son, Joshua Arce.

Though Arce was already working at Haskell before Chenault took the leadership position, employees believed he was being treated differently because of her job. In investigating the complaints, the OIG "found that Haskell employees felt bullied and intimidated by the Haskell President, and we found that the President’s presence in a meeting influenced a family member’s appointment to a high-level position."

The family member was not explicitly identified in the report.

In the past, Haskell's Facebook page has featured photos of Chenault and Arce at numerous events. Their familial relationship, however, was never explicitly stated in the social media posts.

"It's a very interesting, very interesting, atmosphere," Circle Bear said of the environment at Haskell.

For now, Wildcat continues to serve as the acting president of Haskell. According to Interior's statement, a job posting for the vacant post will be published this Friday.

March 5, 2019 Dear Haskell Community, On November 16, 2018, the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) received an Office of...

Posted by Haskell Indian Nations University on Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Office of Inspector General Reports
Investigation of Misconduct Allegations at Haskell Indian Nations University (November 16, 2018)
Investigation Reveals Absence of Clear Boundaries Between Bureau of Indian Education Post-Secondary Educational Institution and Nonprofit Corporation (October 15, 2018)
Employees Believed BIE Director’s Presence During Fiscal Monitoring Review at Former School Was Improper (August 27, 2018)
BIE Official Allegedly Inflated Gifted Program Enrollment and Student Attendance Numbers at Former School (August 16, 2018)

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