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Response to students; commitments to Native and Indigenous communities

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Jeremy Haefner

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Dear DU community members,

On September 25, a peaceful protest was organized by the student-led group Righteous Anger. Healing Resistance. (RAHR). RAHR and the University of Denver’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) have circulated a list of seven demands included in a USG resolution.

I write to you today in response to the USG resolution, which reflects the voices of our student leaders, activists and their allies on campus. These students have called for the University of Denver to take concrete action to continue the vital work we have been engaged in to make our community a more equitable and inclusive campus—in particular for members of the Native American and Indigenous community and communities of color.

It is my hope that this message from our students, our response to it and the progress we have made in recent years can serve as a timely reminder of what the University of Denver stands for and as a reflection of our highest aspirations.

DU’s response to student demands

I.     Increase hiring and retention of faculty of color through equitable and sustainable practices (particularly Black and Native/Indigenous faculty)

As reported—most recently in my September 18 message to the community regarding the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan—Provost Mary Clark is working with Interim Vice Chancellor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tom Romero and our deans to actively “hire and retain diverse faculty candidates who have an accomplished track record (calibrated to their career stage) of teaching, research, or service activities addressing the needs of African American, Latinx, Native American, and Asian Pacific Islander students or communities.” 

It is worth noting that since 2014, the percentage of full-time faculty of color at DU has increased from 14 percent to 20 percent. The effort to recruit a more diverse faculty is ongoing. 

We are also in the process of hiring a Black Experience Coordinator who will identify specific programs, policies and practices to better recruit and retain Black faculty members.

In addition, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is working closely with the provost’s office to recruit and retain diverse faculty at all stages of their academic career by offering on-going training and development opportunities, including diversity, equity and inclusion training for those serving in the faculty search process. Another such practice is exploring programs sponsored by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, of which DU is a member.

II.     Divest from any and all ties with ICE and all detention/correctional facilities

Regarding the presence of ICE on campus, it is important to stress that DU is committed to the protection and support of all who work and study here, including our undocumented students and staff. The University will not cooperate with immigration actions unless ordered by a court or similar process. Similarly, DU will not share information concerning its employees without the employee’s consent or as otherwise required by law.

The demand to divest from any and all ties with correctional facilities is a complex issue with no simple solution, and the University will not be able to fulfill these expectations. A number of DU faculty members conduct important, scholarly research connected to correctional facilities. This research often centers on supporting the rehabilitation, wellbeing and future success of those serving sentences within correctional facilities. Severing all ties with these facilities would adversely affect these goals and negatively impact incarcerated persons by reducing their access to valuable resources and relationships.

Moreover, students in our academic community may be interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement or working in correctional/detention facilities. Through their DU education, these students have the opportunity to make a lasting and positive impact on these systems to the ultimate benefit of incarcerated persons and society broadly. By eliminating educational connectivity, DU may unintentionally stand in the way of the very progress we hope to see in the criminal justice system.

III.     Create a Critical Race and Ethnic Studies department by June 2021

In accordance with the goals of DU IMPACT 2025, our strategic plan, DU announced in June 2019 the creation of a minor in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES). Currently, 27 students are participating in the 20-credit minor, which explores race and ethnicity as categories of social, political, historical and cultural analysis in the United States and globally.

Provost Clark is working with the dean and faculty of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to build toward the expansion of the current minor into a major field of study. A faculty search for a hire to support CRES was recently approved for fall 2021.

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) is also working with various academic units on campus to explore the creation of a graduate-level certificate and/or Master’s program in CRES.

IV.     Create a seat for students on the Board of Trustees by December 2020

Although no students—nor faculty or staff members—hold formal seats on our Board of Trustees, we have become increasingly conscientious about including the voices of all of our constituents in the structures where critical decisions are made.

Undergraduate and graduate student representatives currently sit on the Board of Trustees Committee on Learning and Student Success (CLASS). We will continue to look for additional ways to create engagement between students and trustees. The chair of the Board, Denise O’Leary, and I will ask CLASS to provide input and new ideas on the best way forward. At this time, the Board of Trustees is not adding a student, faculty or staff member to the full Board.

Additionally, DU’s Joint Council, which is comprised of 11 affinity groups, is now a formal branch of student government. The Joint Council meets quarterly with both the chancellor and the vice chancellor of student affairs, and members of the Joint Council will be invited to a Board of Trustees meeting in the winter or spring of 2021.

V.     Reconstitute the Native American Advisory Board

Next month, we will schedule new meetings with the current Native American Community Advisory Board (NACAB). Created as one of the recommendations of the Task Force on Native American Inclusivity, this standing body is made up of DU community members and representatives from the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ute nations, as well as the Denver Native community. We will invite other interested parties from our campus community to the meeting and work to identify additional opportunities for student, staff, faculty and alumni engagement with the NACAB. Provost Clark and I will consult with the NACAB to determine the frequency of future meetings as well as subjects and initiatives to address. The group will communicate transparently and invite participation and feedback as we progress.

VI.     By June 2021, increase engagement with indigenous communities (e.g., through scholarships, mentorship programs, etc.) with a focus on the tribal nations with historical and contemporary connections to the state of Colorado

In the spirit of healing and peace, in addition to the commitments stated above, and based on recommendations and in collaboration with NACAB, we will place the flags gifted to us by the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations, as agreed, in the new Community Commons. They will be displayed in a prominent place that respects and honors the renewed relationship formed through the collaborations initiated by the John Evans Study Committee. 

Currently, the tribal flags are proudly displayed with informational placards on the first floor of the Mary Reed Building per an agreement with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal representatives. This arrangement was made when the flags were originally gifted to DU via an action plan that came out of the first meeting of NACAB as part of the annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run in 2017. In the new display, and in response to the desires of the tribal representatives, we will add a white flag of truce and a 33-star U.S. flag to symbolize the same flags that were flying at the native encampment when the Sand Creek Massacre occurred.

We have also been in contact with the three respective Ute tribal governments to create a display on campus to honor their historical ties to the Denver region in a manner that distinguishes between the Ute Nation and the communities directly impacted by the Sand Creek Massacre and its legacy.

 In addition, please refer to my February 24 message to the community, in which I shared a summary of our current work including a link to the 2016 report and recommendations from our Task Force on Native American Inclusivity. Many initiatives have resulted from that work, including the fostering of community partnerships with Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants and the ongoing support of the Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run through an official sponsorship that began in 2015. We will also permanently maintain our sponsorship of the Tall Bull Memorial Grounds, established in 2017, and reaffirm the critical importance of the DU New Beginnings Powwow as an event that helps DU achieve its goal to be a more inclusive and welcome home for our Native and Indigenous community members.

VII.     Eliminate the Pioneer moniker and all associations with it by February 2021

The usage of the Pioneer moniker is one of the most polarizing issues on our campus. Opinions are deeply entrenched both for and against. And though I have consulted many groups and individuals during the past year, including students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents, there is no doubt that we remain as polarized as ever. Many of these conversations have been difficult; passions run very deeply. I have tried, in all cases, to proceed with great care, deep listening, and an open mind. With that said, we have been discussing and debating the use of the moniker for years, and many of you have shared your view that it is time for a final decision to be made.

The word pioneer carries with it multiple, even contradictory meanings and associations. That is the nature of language: The meaning of words can change over time and across contexts. The effect words can have on us is powerful, but we also have the power to refine, revise and interpret language. For some, the word pioneer affirms that which is the very best of us and, for others, the very worst. It seems this word, and the very different responses to it, will always be contested on our campus. But we believe it is our obligation as educators to address head on our differences of opinion about the word and the important part of our past it embodies.

What we unconditionally denounce is the tragic violence and injustice against Native people denoted by the term pioneer. We acknowledge the findings of the John Evans Report, and we are committed to continuing and redoubling our efforts to educate our community about these wrongs. 

What we avow is the pioneering spirit—the courage and resilience to think and act boldly; to break through barriers as explorers, innovators, and frontrunners into the future. When the scientist discovers a new cure, when the entrepreneur creates a new product or service, when the athlete breaks a new barrier—they each embody the pioneer spirit. This is what is at the core of DU’s mission and what the term, at its best, means. This is the spirit of being a pioneer that we embrace. 

As such, our decision is to retain the usage of the Pioneer moniker, affirmed most recently by our Board of Trustees in 2018, while emphasizing more than ever the positive associations of the word, which describe our goals for our collective future.

At the same time, we must also use the contested definition of the Pioneer moniker to educate, learn and uncover why this word embodies both pain and pride. The University of Denver is committed to continuing its use of the word pioneer and to fully educating our community on why some in our community reject it and why some honor it. 

In proceeding in this way, we aim to reclaim and define our moniker in ways that embody our current values and commitments. We can and must lead with deliberation into our next phase of evolution as a campus, as a learning community of diverse students and scholars and as an equitable and inclusive home for each of us, and those who come after us.

Commitments to Native and Indigenous communities

In this spirit of healing, educating and addressing our past—as well as our future—we are making additional University-wide commitments.

As Chancellor, I will:

  • Dedicate a permanent outside memorial space on campus to honor the complex and tragic history that inextricably links DU to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people through the atrocity of the Sand Creek Massacre.
    • In the words of the 2016 Task Force on Native American Inclusivity, we will build with Sand Creek Massacre descendants and Native/Indigenous Community members “a lasting place to come together, participate in ceremony, learn, remember, reflect and foster healing.” Tom Romero, interim vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, will be charged with overseeing this effort by developing a budget and plan to support the creation of the memorial.
    • Tom will bring together a steering committee of Native/Indigenous community members and other experts to cooperate and consult with descendant representatives, seek their input, advice and involvement on the placement and design of the memorial, and create programming for students, faculty, staff, community and descendant representatives at this memorial site on a regular basis.
  • Provide full-tuition to undergraduate Native American students who qualify for need-based aid. Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment, will be charged with developing the policies of the program, to the greatest extent allowed by law. This program will be effective for new students enrolling in fall of 2021.

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Mary Clark will work with the deans, faculty, Interim Vice Chancellor Tom Romero and the Faculty Senate to:

  • Create a University-wide Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies, beginning with a full proposal, including timelines, to be published by the end of spring quarter and to include the robust engagement and visioning of Native/Indigenous faculty;
  • Establish a target-of-opportunity program, which sets aside dedicated funds to strategically recruit and hire exceptional and diverse faculty members in addition to the University’s standard hiring funding pool and process; and
  • Charge a working group of faculty, staff, students and trustees with designing content and creating a permanent interior exhibit to use in coursework and first-year orientation, which will help our community more fully understand our history—particularly as it relates to the Sand Creek Massacre, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations and the land on which the University of Denver sits.

Finally, Senior Vice Chancellor for Advancement Valerie Otten will:

  • Develop appropriate fundraising plans for the scholarships, memorial site and Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies.

This is a long, detailed response to many serious and important issues and demands. We know elements of this message will be difficult for members of our community. We also know there are incredibly important commitments shared in this message. But it is our resolute view—and my deeply held view—that we must move forward and work to better understand different viewpoints, and in so doing, come closer to common ground together.


Jeremy Haefner