Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University will draw a blank from most observers of academia. But in its own bizarre way, this school, near Davis, California, has status as a symbol of the zaniness of contemporary higher education.
During the 1960s the U.S. Army maintained a communications relay facility on 643 acres in Yolo county, near Sacramento. In 1970, the Army announced plans to close the place, which touched off a squabble at nearby UC Davis. The Native American and Chicano studies programs demanded the property, which others at UC Davis wanted for primate research. The federal government sided with the primate project, but that failed to settle the issue.
On November 4, 1970, Art Apodoca, an activist in the Caesar Chavez mold, and some of his friends jumped the fence, assembled a teepee, and occupied the property. The government failed to evict them and, after five months, caved in to their demands and gave them the property, in a kind of reverse eminent domain. The following year the activists launched Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University named after, respectively, the co-founder of the Iroquois Confederacy and a feathered-serpent Aztec deity. In DQU parlance, Quetzalcoatl is an "Aztec prophet," but the campus never raised church-state issues. Its mission was to unite indigenous people in the United States and Mexico.
At the time, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was on the rise. Under the leadership of Dennis Banks, AIM led a 1973 protest in Custer, South Dakota, that turned into a courthouse gun battle. Banks, who was also the principal negotiator in the Wounded Knee standoff, fled to California, where then-governor Jerry Brown refused to extradite him. Not known as a scholar or administrator, Dennis Banks possessed the politically correct credentials to became chancellor of Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University in 1975. That lent heft to charges by locals, who dubbed DQU "terrorist tech."
Some believed that militants would use the old Army communications equipment to network with hostile foreign governments and revolutionaries. While that never materialized, neither did much education, even though in 1977 DQU gained accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), a division of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Courses were highly politicized, such as Environmental Issues 301, about uranium mining on reservations, and Social Science 242, an Indian interpretation of early U.S. history. The reading list was a politically correct litany of works by militants.
In 1984 Dennis Banks fled to an Indian reservation in New York state to avoid extradition by new California governor George Deukmejian. The institution Banks led was beginning to look like a corrupt Indian reservation. During the early 1980s federal auditors cited DQU for various violations, failing to enroll enough students and leasing land to farmers, a violation of their agreement. The audit recommended that the land be returned to the government. Management and financial problems continued to plague DQU, subject to a U.S. Department of Education investigation about mishandled financial aid. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also withdrew $300,000 because of declining Indian enrollment.
The school maintained its accreditation through the 1990s even though president Peter Gabriel had only a bachelor's degree from UC Davis, never attended graduate school, and spent most of his adult life as a jewelry maker. The ACCJC submitted DQU to a comprehensive review in 2004. The accrediting agency had been pushing the school to recruit and train board members – they had six but were supposed to have 16 – hire qualified faculty and provide courses that lead to an associate degree. The problems were of such magnitude that the burden of proof rested on DQU to show why their accreditation should be continued. They failed to do so and on January 19, 2005, DQU lost accreditation, and with it the prospect of further federal aid for students.
Peter Gabriel and board of trustees chairman David Risling Jr. announcing that the campus was temporarily closing while they developed a new plan. Leaders approached Indian casinos for donations but came away with only about $8,000. In the style of the original founders, some students occupied the dorms. Gabriel and Risling sent out a notice stating that the rebuilding of the campus "cannot be carried out while the dormitories are occupied." Further, "In the past, D-QU has had trouble with theft, damage to property, illegal drugs, unauthorized persons, alcohol use, sexual abuse and other problems. We cannot allow such things to happen again."
Art Apodoca, now 65, did not want to see the place go down for the count. He took on the DQU cause and clashed with the Gabriel group, sending the issue to court. Yolo County Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg ruled that board members elected and appointed from January through March were invalid. Gabriel and company were out, Apodoca in as interim president, enrolling students and offering scholarships. Apodaca wants to restore accreditation but may find that a difficult matter.
ACCJC president Barbara Beno told Frontpage that DQU will have to be a functioning college and that the process can't begin until January 2007 under the organization's two-year rule for schools that lose accreditation. In the western region covered by WASC, she said, there was no precedent for a school regaining accreditation. There is, however, much precedent for politicized education, a sixties legacy that remains widespread and promises a lot more than it can deliver.
The saga of Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University confirms that reality but offers a key lesson to any legislators willing to learn. If governments cave in to militants, the result will not necessarily be beneficial for the disadvantaged those militants claim to represent.
Jerry Brown, who gave sanctuary to DQU chancellor Dennis Banks, is now mayor of Oakland and running for attorney general of California. If he wins, he might have to rethink his extradition policy.
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