The University of Minnesota announced that Karen Diver, both a former chairwoman for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Obama administration official, will soon serve in the newly created position of senior advisor to U of M President Joan Gabel.

Diver will act as a member of Gabel's senior leadership team and report directly to the president on Native American affairs, which she said will include anything from how to better serve tribal nations and help them build their workforce, as well as determining respectful research relationships and attracting and retaining Native learners.

"It's about education and it's about finding allies," Diver said of the work she will be doing. "And this is a good time right now to be having these conversations because they're happening in higher ed and they're happening in our community."

Diver, who's currently finishing up two years spent at the University of Arizona as the business development director for Native American advancement, will start the new role May 28.

In a news release announcing the new role on Tuesday, Gabel said that Diver's experience with federal, state and tribal government as well as her personal experience positions her to "excel" at helping the U of M work toward reconciliation.

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“As a land-grant University that was built within tribal lands, we remain deeply committed to rebuilding trust with Minnesota’s Tribal Nations," Gabel said. "We aim to form mutually beneficial partnerships, research, policies and practices that respect tribal traditions, languages and governance."

Beginning in 2007, Diver served as the chairwoman for the Fond du Lac Band until former President Barack Obama appointed her to be a special assistant to the president on Native American affairs, a position she held until Obama's second term ended in January of 2017.

Karen Diver, who was President Barack Obama's special assistant for Native American Affairs, is pictured with the president, Diver's daughter, Rochelle Diver, and husband Arne Selnes in what is called a "departure photo" taken at the end of her tenure. Photo courtesy of the White House.
Karen Diver, who was President Barack Obama's special assistant for Native American Affairs, is pictured with the president, Diver's daughter, Rochelle Diver, and husband Arne Selnes in what is called a "departure photo" taken at the end of her tenure. Photo courtesy of the White House.

After her time in public service, Diver turned to higher education because she's passionate about making things better for younger generations. She believes strongly in providing opportunities for self-determination and stability, and making sure institutions provide that opportunity equitably.

Following the appointment to the Obama administration, Diver taught in the University of Minnesota Duluth's Master of Tribal Administration and Governance program for a semester. She was then appointed to be the inaugural faculty fellow for inclusive excellence for Native American affairs at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

During the interview process for the new U of M role, Diver said she made herself available to tribal leaders in Minnesota so they had an opportunity to provide feedback, whether it was positive or negative. She received none of the latter.

She said Gabel "took to heart" the conversations she's had with tribal nations about institutional change. Only a handful of other institutions have similar positions.

Because the U of M is a land-grant institution, Diver said it has benefitted from tribal lands. The Morrill Act of 1862 established the land-grant university system in order to expand public education in America. Across the country, millions of acres of tribal lands were ceded or seized as a result in order to fund universities.

"Through the years academia has been focused on a really Western viewpoint," she said. "In some cases it was extractive. Research was done to tribes not with tribes. You have history across the country of collecting artifacts."

Reconciliation will require acknowledging the past, while showing up better in the present moment, Diver said. She's excited about the new position and eager for a long-term opportunity.

In addition to senior leadership, she'll work with people at the campus level such as Tadd Johnson, the system's senior director of American Indian tribal relations, another relatively new position, as well as the University's Office of Equity and Diversity.

"I like this work," Diver said. "You know, when you try to change the system, sometimes it's really baby steps and sometimes it's a step backward but every once in a while you make a little leap."