Open Letter to TU Leadership RE Indian Law Program

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Dear President Clancy, Provost Levit, Dean Entzeroth, and the University of Tulsa Board of Trustees:

We are writing in response to the recent announcement that the University of Tulsa (TU) College of Law will be reprioritizing its focus away from its historic Indian law program. In light of the unveiling of the TU True Commitment plan, Lyn Entzeroth, Dean of TU Law, announced that TU is eliminating the J.D. Certificate in Indian Law, the Master of Jurisprudence in Indian law (MJIL), and the Indian Law L.L.M.  Dean Entzeroth has announced that TU Law will instead offer a concentration in Indian law and that the Board of Trustees has approved the hiring of one core subject faculty member who can also teach Indian law. As students, alumni, and stakeholders, we have significant concerns about this decision, as it would mean TU is losing what was once the foremost Indian law program in the United States. TU’s apparent decision to no longer fully invest in Indian law would erase a prestigious program that took dedicated faculty, including the late G. William Rice, decades to build. This unfortunate decision ignores a rich and unique opportunity for TU to prepare its students for highly relevant legal issues and to develop inroads with tribal governments that will be mutually beneficial for both the Tribal Nations and TU Law. Rather than diminishing Indian law programming to an afterthought and labeling it a “concentration,” TU should work to bolster the program, invest in qualified faculty and course offerings, and bring it back to its former glory.

Indian law is more relevant now than ever before. Three of the biggest tribal nations in the country possess jurisdiction within the city of Tulsa- The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Osage Nation, and the Cherokee Nation. With the Supreme Court soon to decide Carpenter v. Murphy, which will determine whether the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation have been disestablished, the relevance of Indian country to Oklahoma is especially pronounced. In light of the Murphy decision, TU Law is potentially the only law school in the country that sits within the borders of an Indian reservation. Additionally, as the United States continues to develop its natural resources--many of which are located on or near Indian country--TU has the unique opportunity to train lawyers to navigate these complex issues. Finally, Indian law has garnered international attention in recent years as tribal governments have held representative positions at the U.N., and indigenous populations around the world have taken to the courts to assert their unique rights to the land. Attempting to move forward within this legal and cultural context without a fully developed and robust Indian law program is foolish at best.

Many TU alumni rely heavily on their Indian law education every day. So long as the majority of TU students practice law in Oklahoma, they will need to understand various aspects of Indian law. For example, Indian law courses are invaluable for energy and environmental law. In addition, family law practitioners must understand the Indian Child Welfare Act for any custody case involving a Native American child. Finally, Oklahoma lawyers must understand how allotments affect a client’s property rights and how Oklahoma lawyers need to better understand tribal compacts for areas of the law such as gaming, mineral development, and taxation. Without this background, TU students will be at a disadvantage both during the hiring process and in their practice. Even for those practicing outside of Oklahoma, Indian law is invaluable both for the attorneys and the communities they serve.

Other law schools are increasing their Indian law programming. Institutions across North America, such as the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City University, the University of Arizona, the University of New Mexico, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Seattle University, the University of Toronto, the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia, and Lewis and Clark Law School are growing their Indian Law programs significantly. The University of Victoria has even launched a joint Juris Doctor/Juris Indigenarum Doctor program, which combines “intensive study of Canadian Common Law with intensive engagement with Indigenous laws [that] will develop the skills needed to practice within Canadian Common Law, with Indigenous legal orders, and at the interface between them.”[1] While law schools across the continent are recognizing the importance and lucrative potential of well-rounded Indian law programs, TU is being left behind by not prioritizing Indian law as an essential and serious discipline.

TU’s physical location near tribal headquarters presents powerful opportunities. For example, the University of Oklahoma markets its Indian law program as a microcosm of international law, since students get to work directly with tribal leaders and learn to navigate how tribal governments interact with state and federal governments. Indeed, the University of Oklahoma has built strong relationships with tribal governments to fund faculty positions, scholarships, and paid internships for its students. TU could have these, too. But if TU turns its back on Indian country now, it will lose out on potentially significant partnerships that would be extremely difficult to reestablish. Tribal governments have become ever-more sophisticated and influential in their policy efforts, impact on Oklahomans, and control over natural resources -- not only statewide but also nationally and internationally. Furthermore, TU’s location allows students and faculty to work on projects specifically affecting tribal governments and indigenous peoples, and to raise funds to make such programs sustainable. Without a clear commitment to Indian law-related coursework, tribes lack the incentive to form lucrative partnerships with the university. TU would be foolish to ignore the transformative potential that these governments are able to offer the university.

Despite fewer faculty and resources, TU still attracts top Indian law students. This is evidenced, for example, in the strides that the Native American Law Student Association has made in national moot court competitions in recent years. In 2018, the NALSA team won first place in the competition. In years prior it placed in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. Current TU Law student RhyLee Sanford recently received the G. William Rice Memorial Scholarship from the Oklahoma Bar Association Indian law Section. Julie Combs recently received the Udall Native American Congressional Internship, giving TU students a national platform and national recognition. Reducing or eliminating the Indian law Program would jeopardize these highly prestigious award opportunities and hand them to our direct competitors. TU cannot simultaneously tout the accomplishments of its Native American students and cast aside the programs that have led to these accomplishments.

Finally, TU bears a special responsibility to Indian country in Oklahoma. Before the Henry Kendall College ever existed, TU began as a school for Mvskoke (Creek) girls. Today, the University is located within the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Resources taken from tribal members made millionaires who funded TU and made it the school it is today. Native Americans worked hard to build programs and to elevate the school’s standing. Furthermore, if TU truly wants to focus on social justice in Oklahoma--as stated in the True Commitment plan--turning its back on the needs of Indian Country, which absolutely includes the need for well-trained attorneys in the field of Indian law, flies in the face of this mission.TU has intentionally established itself as a pillar of the Tulsa community and is inextricably intertwined with the history of the tribal nations. This includes retaining historic Indian Country documents, such as the original McIntosh papers and the original Osage allotment cards, as well as a vast collection of valuable original artwork and indigenous artifacts. As a result, TU undeniably has a specific responsibility to Indian people and Tribal nations in Oklahoma. If bolstered, TU’s Indian law program could help Indian country gain more independence, more resources, and more influence, and Indian country could help TU to achieve its goals of being a top tier university. If abandoned, TU’s reputation and prestige will be forever marred.

Given the reasons above, this group would like to see the Indian law Program bolstered at TU. To do so, we would like the TU Law Administration to take the following actions:

  1. Create a Board of Advisors for the Indian law Program at TU Law by August 1, 2019. Indigenous individuals must hold a minimum 75% of Board positions, and the Dean should nominate one faculty member to serve on the Board in a seat reserved for this purpose.   
  2. The Board of Advisors should create a strategic plan no later than December 31, 2019, that will detail how TU Law can grow its Indian law Program and build it back into the preeminent Indian law program in the country. This plan should create a vision for the program, timeline, and action steps to fundraise; identify partnership opportunities with tribal governments; create a plan to hire new faculty with a primary focus on Indian law; and assess ways to attract and retain Indigenous students, including establishing dedicated scholarships.
  3. The Law School should support the Board of Advisors in developing this plan and provide it dedicated time during faculty meetings. It should schedule a vote at either the last Fall 2019 faculty meeting or the first Spring 2020 faculty meeting (depending on the Board’s preference) on whether to adopt the plan. Further, the Law School Administration should support the Board’s efforts to present the plan to President Clancy and Provost Levitt by February 2020.
  4. The Law School should dedicate space in all communications with alumni so that the Indian law Board of Advisors can provide alumni with updates on the strategic plan, as well as updates on programmatic development, implementation, and success.

Thank you for your time and consideration in these matters. As alumni and current students, we are writing because we want to make TU the best that it can be; building a robust Indian law program is most certainly a part of building TU’s potential. We have grave concerns about the plan to diminish Indian law at TU to an indefinable “concentration” and what that will mean for the future of the program. Eliminating or even reducing the Indian law program would be a drastic misstep for the school and we expect that TU Law will do everything in its power to rebuild this program.

 

[1] https://www.uvic.ca/law/about/indigenous/jid/index.php