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'Encouraged to Leave'

Facing an uncertain future, Cal Poly Humboldt Native Studies chair speaks out

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Speaking publicly for the first time since the future of her tenure at Cal Poly Humboldt became uncertain, Native American Studies Department Chair Cutcha Risling Baldy said she felt "encouraged to leave."

The local product, a Hoopa Valley Tribal member of Hupa, Yurok and Karuk decent, was speaking at this month's meeting of the Cal Poly Humboldt Academic Senate, addressing a controversy that has bubbled since the university did not extend her a "retention offer," an effort to keep professors from being lured away by other universities by giving them raises or other benefits beyond their current salary. Risling Baldy, a Stanford graduate who received a doctorate in Native American studies from the University of California at Davis before coming back to teach at Humboldt, is a nationally renowned scholar, published author and leading voice on Native issues. A petition calling on the university to retain her has gathered more than 1,500 signatures.

As presented to the Academic Senate by Risling Baldy and others, she approached her college's dean earlier this year to report she'd received two job offers from two other institutions that included increased salary, promotion and "other benefits." The dean then discussed these offers with the provost to "inquire about retention and parity," English associate professor Lisa Tremain told the senate, and the provost indicated the university would not make any effort to match Risling Baldy's other offers.

Risling Baldy said she was not told of a formal process that exists for seeking a retention offer and accompanying forms but was simply told there would be no retention offer, either of competitive salary or other accommodations.

"No offer of any kind would be made," she said. "The message I received was that my offer [from other institutions] was a good offer and I should take it. I felt encouraged to leave."

The hurt felt by Risling Baldy and others regarding the exchange would be exacerbated when a university spokesperson responded to an inquiry about the online petition seeking Risling Baldy's retention by saying that she is a tenured associate professor with a permanent contract, and her "position is not threatened in any way."

Where things go from here with Risling Baldy is unclear — attempts to reach her for this story were unsuccessful — but comments to the Academic Senate made clear the situation has raised deep concerns about the university's commitment to recruiting and retaining faculty members of color. It is also raising questions about what some see as the university's unique obligation to retain Native faculty descended from local tribes that have lived on the North Coast since time immemorial.

For Risling Baldy, who wrote the book We are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women's Coming-of-age Ceremonies about the revitalization of the Hoopa Valley Tribe's ceremonies, has become a prominent voice in the land-back movement, is a co-director of the Rou Dalagurr Food Sovereignty Lab, co-founded the Native Women's Collective nonprofit and is seen as a pillar of the rebuilding of the university's Native American Studies Department, the situation is intensely personal.

"I wish that this was about money — if it was about money, it would be an easy decision and maybe, just maybe, wouldn't hurt this much," Risling Baldy told the senate. "I came to Humboldt because it is my home. These waters run through my veins, these lands have shaped and built me. And I have only ever thought of this university as a place that has found and grown some of the most dedicated and visionary scholars and students that I have ever met. I grew up on this campus."

Risling Baldy explained that she'd take the school bus to library circle every day and make her way to the Indian Tribal and Educational Personnel Program House, sometimes stopping at the library's Humboldt Room, where she first learned to use a card catalog. She said she filled out her college applications on campus with the help and support of Native students, she participated in the first Humboldt pow-wow and Humboldt Big Time gatherings.

"I have watched the campus grow," she said. "I have watched the new administration dismantle Native programs with very little concern for the community and how they've relied on these programs. I've watched Native faculty recover from these setbacks, how they rebuilt over and over and over again."

Risling Baldy said the university's Native American Studies Department has seven tenure-track Native faculty members, including five from local tribes, as well as numerous Native lecturers, as it works to integrate traditional ecological knowledge into various disciplines as a tenet of its new polytechnic designation.

"Humboldt is poised to be home to some of the leading Native faculty in the nation," she said. "What does it mean for our Native community to see the devaluing of a Native professor at our university? Retention is also about what we value, what we want our university to be, and how we can best address ongoing, systemic issues that would drive Indigenous faculty away from academia."

Kaitlin Reed, an assistant professor in the Native American Studies Department, pointed out to the senate that while the university's student body has become increasingly diverse, its staff and faculty have not and it continues to struggle to retain faculty of color. Further, she noted that the university's prospectus mentions words like "tribe," "Native, "Indigenous" close to 200 times, underscoring the stated importance of Native knowledge to the campus, or at least to the image of itself it promotes to potential students.

Tremain told the senate she'd like to see a university-wide critical assessment of retention and promotion efforts for faculty of color and that deans make public a list of faculty members who have "separated" from the university over the last academic year.

Senator Maxwell Schnurer, a professor in the Communications Department, called on the senate to act as one voice to ask the provost to extend a "competitive" retention offer to Risling Baldy, pointing to her work to grow her department and create the new food sovereignty lab, as well as the fact that Yurok, Hupa, Talawa and Yurok people have been teaching on these lands for thousands of years.

"When a groundbreaking faculty member who is permanently connected to this place ... doesn't even get a counter offer but is encouraged to leave, we all lose at this university," Schnurer said. "This is an issue of justice."

After much strained discussion, with some senators saying they were leery of the perils of wading into a specific employment issue, the senate voted to urge university administration to "meaningfully address retention issues" pertaining to faculty members of color, including by "offering competitive retention offers," while also instructing its Academic Affairs Committee to look into policy changes surrounding the issue next year.

Of course, none of that seems likely to move the needle for Risling Baldy and the choice she faces of whether to stay at a department she's helped build up in her ancestral homelands, working for an administration that seems indifferent to her potential departure, or to leave to an institution that has actively recruited her.

"In Hoopa, we say we are made of this earth — this earth, these waters, this air have built us so we can maintain this earth in balance," she told the senate. "I have harbored no fantasies that an institution would ever show care or reciprocity to anyone, let alone me. But I am in awe of the number of people who have stepped forward to show support for the work that I have had the privilege of doing while here at Humboldt. ... It is clear that Humboldt will always be for me a leading Native American Studies Department and a place that we can love, even if it does not and will not love us back."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com.

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