Welcome to Race on Campus. Arizona State University is built upon the ancestral homeland of the O’odham and Piipaash people, and there are 20 other tribal nations and communities in the state. The university has also seen an increase in American Indian and Indigenous student enrollment, so the institution sought to hire more Native faculty. Chelsea Long reports how the campus did it.

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From Serendipity to Intentionality

Before she accepted a tenured faculty position at Arizona State University, Melissa K. Nelson had been thinking about leaving academe. She’d felt disheartened while working at institutions that were slow to hire Indigenous faculty and made it challenging for her to take students to local tribal communities for field experiences — a critical aspect of her work as a professor of Indigenous sustainability.

“ASU is different,” Nelson said. “It’s very much focused on solving real-world problems through transdisciplinary lenses.” And it has the resources to do it well, too, she said in an interview.

Nelson has felt supported by the university since she was hired in 2020. Research and teaching assistants, funding, physical space, and collaborative opportunities are just some of the perks of working there, she said, and the sense of community isn’t bad either.

“The most significant thing for me at ASU, there is a strong presence and acknowledgment for local Native American communities and Indigenous peoples,” she said. “I love that there is strong Native leadership at the staff level, at the faculty level, at the student level, really sprinkled throughout the whole university. We’re still a minority, of course, but the Native presence here is much more visible than at any other institution of higher ed I’ve worked in.

At ASU, 60 scholars bring their Indigenous knowledge to the fields of sustainability, education, dramatic arts, science, law, and health care. Though Indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of the faculty at the Tempe campus — which is similar to their representation nationally — this year’s cohort is the largest ever assembled there.

No Overnight Success

ASU’s achievement in hiring and retaining Indigenous scholars was not an overnight success, but a result of 20 years of persistence by university leadership.

Michael M. Crow became the university’s 16th president in 2002. “We have a president who has a deep understanding of sovereignty, a deep understanding of place, who cares about where we are and about our relationships with those communities,” said Bryan Brayboy, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s senior adviser to the president on American Indian affairs.

ASU is situated on the ancestral homeland of the O’odham and Piipaash people, but there are also 20 other tribal nations and communities in the state. An increase in the enrollment of Indigenous students from these tribes and others over the past few years is what led ASU to hire more Native faculty. “Our students were telling us, We want more Native faculty who have some sense of what our experiences are and can teach us in particular kinds of ways,” said Brayboy.

Indigenous scholars are uniquely attuned to the values of their communities, which can be critical when their work involves studying those communities. Nelson, for example, understands how important it is to build trust and co-produce knowledge as equals, rather than acting like an expert and failing to acknowledge insights from Native people.

Brayboy questions the notion that there are simply too few Native scholars out there. “Indigenous excellence, Indigenous brilliance is ubiquitous,” he said. “There are many Native scholars who are really, really smart who aren’t getting noticed in the way they deserve.”

The recruiting strategy shifted from simply posting jobs and hoping Indigenous scholars would apply to seeking out those scholars individually, encouraging them to apply, and creating the conditions necessary for them to thrive. An informal group of faculty, staff, school directors, and deans helps the university identify that talent, and a smaller, more formal group advises the provost and president on potential hires.

Coming Home

That network of people on the lookout for talented Native scholars helped recruit Matt Ignacio, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Social Work. Ignacio met Felicia Mitchell, a faculty member at the social-work school, while he was in the second year of his Ph.D. program at the University of Washington. The Indigenous community within academe is relatively small and naturally close-knit; their paths most likely crossed at a research event, Ignacio said. At that time, Mitchell was the only Native faculty member in the school of social work.

The two kept in regular contact. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was assessing where I was in the program because she had bigger ideas,” he said. “She wanted me there.”

School leadership reached out to him, too, saying they wanted to bring him home. That was important to Ignacio and is for much of the other Indigenous faculty who have tribal ties to that land. “It’s refreshing that directors and leadership are serious when they say it’s important that we have a diverse faculty that reflects our student body and then really be intentional about it,” Ignacio said.

Indigenous faculty say they feel very supported by the university. Monthly check-ins allow tenured faculty and newcomers to voice their concerns and give administrators a chance to get some sense of what they really need.

The goal, said Brayboy, is to nurture the next generation of Native scholars. “We are interested in systemic change and thinking about how we can create the conditions for emerging faculty to be successful and to grow into senior faculty who will do that for others,” he said.

—Chelsea Long

Read Up

    • During last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, many Black women said they felt pride and hope. Some also said that they felt disgust at the aggressive questioning by some Republican senators, and that they’ve faced similar discrimination in their professional lives. (The New York Times)
    • Racism within the Kansas City Police Department has driven many Black officers from the force, according to a newspaper’s yearlong investigation. (The Kansas City Star)
    • The University of Richmond will change the namesof six buildings associated with slavery and racism. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
    • From earlier this month: The journalist Jill Abramson investigated whether George Washington had an enslaved son. (The New Yorker)


    Corrections (March 30, 2022, 5:17 p.m.): A previous version of this newsletter misstated the year that Melissa K. Nelson was hired at Arizona State University and the number of tribal nations in Arizona. Nelson was hired in 2020, and there are 22 tribal nations and communities in the state.