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Antioch’s Seattle Campus Chooses First American Indian Woman College Head

Dr. Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet of the Navajo, or Dine, tribe appears to be the first American Indian woman to be appointed president of a mainstream university outside of the tribal college system. She was named this month to lead Antioch University Seattle from a pool of more than 40 candidates. She formally begins her presidency July 15.

Neither the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) nor the Council on the Advancement and Support of Education has a record of any Native woman being named president of a non-tribal college until now, but cannot confirm the information with 100 percent accuracy. The lack of such data could be said to underscore the dearth of native women in leadership positions among non-tribal colleges. Rather fittingly, Manuelito-Kerkvliet’s doctoral thesis examines the challenges faced by Native women pursuing leadership positions in higher education and the lack of mentoring available to them.

Manuelito-Kerkvliet says that by breaking through the traditional glass ceiling for women of color in higher education leadership, she will send an important message of inclusion and possibility to students and faculty.

“I want the school to be open to everyone,” she says of her plans for the university. Antioch University Seattle, located in downtown Seattle, is one of six campuses of Antioch University founded in 1852 in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It is a private, liberal arts school that emphasizes community service and social justice.

Manuelito-Kerkvliet is very excited about the racial and social diversity in Seattle and hopes to send a message that private universities such as Antioch are not just for the elite.

She was the first woman president of DinĂ© College, the first tribally controlled community college, which is located in Tsaile, Ariz. During her tenure there, Manuelito-Kerkvliet successfully lobbied the Navajo Nation to increase tribal appropriation for the college from $925,000 to $2.1 million. 

She was the founder and director of the Indian Education office at Oregon State University where she established numerous programs to recruit and retain Native students and faculty. Recently, she served on the Biological Sciences advisory board for the National Science Foundation and as a consultant for the AIHEC and Alliance for Equity in Higher Education’s initiative to train future administrators in the Minority Serving Institution’s Leadership Fellows Institute. She earned a doctorate in education and management at the University of Oregon, and a master’s in counselor education and bachelor’s in social work at the University of Wyoming.

Although born and raised in Laramie, Wyo., she grew up in a very traditional Dine home. She expresses her heritage in traditional Dine terms, that of being born into the Towering House clan which is her mother’s clan and born for her father’s Salt clan.  She fondly refers to her homeland as Naschitti and Tohatchi, located on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, where her family visited every weekend.

Manuelito-Kerkvliet’s family has a long tradition of valuing education. Her great, great grandfather was the renowned Chief Manuelito of the Navajo Nation who told his people, “Education is the ladder to success. Tell my grandchildren to climb the ladder.” He was one of the signers of the 1868 treaty that brought the Dine back to their homeland after their tragic exile to Fort Sumner. More than 5,000 Navajo people were said to have perished during the infamous “Long Walk” between their homeland and Fort Sumner, some 300 miles away.

Manuelito-Kerkvliet credits her family and ancestors for her success and expresses a deep gratitude for their sacrifices that allowed her to grow into a leadership role.

“The holy ones have made a perfect place for me,” she says. “I really believe that I am in the right place.”

–Mary Annette Pember

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