A Native American professor at the University of North Dakota announced last week that he will not renew his position at the end of this academic year because the school twice stopped him from creating a lecture series about the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
Mark Trahant, a journalism professor who is a member of Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, wrote in a Facebook post last week that the university rejected a lecture series he proposed last academic year about media coverage of Standing Rock. This school year, he suggested a conference looking at the role of social media in the pipeline protests but was once again rebuffed. Trahant indicated in his post that senior administration officials were worried the state legislature would retaliate for the courses.
"I am disappointed and disgusted that the university is not an institutional leader," Trahant wrote. "It should be a beam of light, shining on the protected realm of rational discourse."
The day after Trahant's post, the university issued a statement saying the decisions not to approve the lecture series were not based on concerns about the state legislature. And the school also announced it would hold an event that looked at news coverage of the Dakota Access pipeline and the protests at Standing Rock.
Reached by phone Monday, Trahant said that when he first proposed the lecture series, he was told to hold off. "There was a lot of concern that it was too hot a topic," he said. He said that he is delighted that the university will hold a conference on the issue but that he will still leave at the end of the school year.
Beginning early last year, the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which spans North and South Dakota, was the focus of national and international attention as protests by indigenous and environmental groups targeted the planned completion of the Dakota Access pipeline. The nearly 1,200-mile long pipeline was built to transfer up to 570,000 barrels of oil a day from northern North Dakota to a refinery in Illinois.
The groups protesting the $3.8 billion pipeline said it was built despite objections that it crossed sacred Native American burial grounds and presented a threat to tribal lands and drinking water because it went under the Missouri River at the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Following a drawn-out legal battle, a federal judge turned down a final request to block construction in February, and the pipeline became fully operational in June.
Trahant, a veteran reporter and educator and former president of the Native American Journalists Association, has long covered Native American issues and often wrote about the Standing Rock standoff. In his Facebook post, he expressed his frustration and said the lack of support from the university led to his decision to resign.
"I understand that it's important to keep fighting, but when your institution is absent, well, for me, this chapter ends," he wrote. In an interview, he said the university "has really not done a lot to reach out to tribal communities."
Two years ago, the University of North Dakota changed its mascot from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks after years of protests by American Indians and others who said the name was offensive. Native Americans make up a little more than 5 percent of North Dakota's population but just over 1 percent of the university's 14,406 students.
A spokesman for the university said the school's president, Mark Kennedy, was not aware of Trahant's proposals and wasn't involved in the decision to reject them.
"President Kennedy regrets that there is any perception that the university would have prevented a faculty-led activity from taking place based on perceived fears of legislative response," Peter Johnson, the University of North Dakota's interim vice president for university and public affairs, wrote in a statement.
Johnson rejected the idea that any decisions were made based on concerns about the state legislature.
"The University of North Dakota senior administration has never, to my knowledge — and that includes conversations in the past two days, expressed any fear of retaliation by the North Dakota legislature or by North Dakota legislators related to academic content," Johnson wrote. "The university has engaged in all sorts of topics in ways that explore the full spectrum of positions related to those topics."
Trahant said the conference on media coverage of Standing Rock will probably be in March and will include a keynote address by Jenni Monet, a Native American journalist who was arrested during her extensive coverage of the more than year-long protest.