February 26, 2024
The retirement of another accused "pretendian" at UC Riverside has re-focused attention on controversial UC Berkeley scholar Elizabeth Hoover.

UC Berkeley students and Native American scholars have renewed calls for the resignation of anthropologist Elizabeth Hoover, who became the focus of concerns about the school’s academic integrity and respect for authentic Native American identity when she publicly admitted in May that she’s “a White person who incorrectly identified as Native my whole life.”

The calls for Hoover to leave UC Berkeley, or for the campus to take action, began anew this month with the announced retirement of Andrea Smith, a controversial UC Riverside ethnic studies professor who faced accusations for at least 15 years that she helped build her career and scholarship around false claims of being Cherokee.

REALTED: UC Riverside professor resigns over ‘pretendian’ claims, but will keep teaching for another year

A separation agreement between UC Riverside and Smith was revealed last week, and students and scholars say it constitutes progress in the thorny question of how universities respond to tenured faculty who have been accused of falsely representing themselves as Native Americans to win prestigious positions, funding and research and publishing opportunities.

These cases have gained attention in recent years amid intense discussions in Native American circles about high-profile “Pretendians” and the complicated nature of Native identity.

“I applaud UC Riverside for treating this issue with the severity it deserves,” said Ataya Cesspooch, a doctoral student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management. Hoover is a tenured faculty member in the department, where she specializes in environmental health and food justice in Native American communities. “Riverside has demonstrated that it is entirely within the university’s power to remove tenured professors for fraudulent identity claims.”

The UC Riverside agreement with Smith followed a complaint filed by 13 of her faculty colleagues in August 2022, who charged that she violated Faculty Code of Conduct provisions concerning academy integrity. A year earlier, the ethnic fraud allegations against Smith were the subject of a lengthy New York Times magazine investigation, and she was called “the Native American Rachel Dolezal” in a 2015 Daily Beast report.

The agreement allows Smith, who “denies and disputes” the allegations against her, to stay in her teaching job for another year. She also will be able to retire with an emerita title, benefits and a pension, and she won’t face a formal investigation by UC Riverside. From the university’s perspective, the agreement brings the case to a “timely conclusion,” said spokesperson John D. Warren, who noted that “investigations of a tenured faculty member for alleged misconduct have potential for litigation and appeals, and can unfold over the course of years.”

While scholars and students are disappointed that the agreement provides Smith with a “soft exit,” they say it still provides a road map for how UC Berkeley could address the Hoover controversy.

“Berkeley should pay attention, follow suit, and improve upon this,” said Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson, an anthropology professor at Columbia. “If a scholar has been found to violate the tenets of research ethics or has otherwise demonstrated that they lack academic integrity there should formal complaint, there should be a full investigation and if found to be in violation, they should be dismissed.”

The controversy over Hoover erupted last November when Cesspooch and two other Native American PhD students, Sierra Edd and Breylan Martin, issued a public statement calling for her resignation. The statement was signed by more than 390 people, including other Native American scholars and activists, as well as current and former students from UC Berkeley and Brown, Hoover’s post-gradua5e alma mater.

For much of Hoover’s career, going back to the 2000s, she told people she descended from the Mohawk and Mi’kmaq peoples of eastern Canada and the United States. She referenced this ancestry in news accounts and while researching her doctoral dissertation for Brown University. Meanwhile, she won jobs, grants, as well as two prestigious Ford Foundation fellowships that were designated for people from underrepresented groups. She published books and papers and became a mover and shaker in the “food sovereignty” movement, according to the news site, Indianz.com.

In May, Hoover admitted she’s not descended from either tribe and apologized for “the harm” she caused friends, colleagues and students by wrongly claiming she was. In a statement posted on her website and in an interview with this news organization she said she always assumed she was Native American because that’s what she was told while growing up in upstate New York. She said she never knowingly falsified her identity or tried to deceive anyone. “I’m a human,” she said. “I didn’t set out to hurt or exploit anyone.”

Hoover did not respond to emails or phone messages asking for her response to Smith’s retirement or renewed calls for her to resign. In May, she said she didn’t plan to resign, and UC Berkeley previously said that it doesn’t plan to remove Hoover from her position, while spokesperson Janet Gilmore said the campus supported her efforts to address “the extent to which this matter has caused harm and upset among members of our community.”

In a statement this week, Gilmore declined to comment on either Smith or Hoover specifically and said the campus usually doesn’t comment on faculty misconduct allegations unless there is a finding of a violation. But “speaking generally,” Gilmore said, “I can tell you that when and if any allegations of policy violation are brought to our attention, we review the concern and take appropriate action.”

Given that personnel matters are cloaked in confidentiality, it’s not clear why the faculty complaints against Smith finally prompted UC Riverside to negotiate her departure after years of controversy. While Edd confirmed that she, Cesspooch and Martin didn’t file a formal complaint, Cesspooch said Berkeley’s chancellor and administrators took no action in response to their public statement, “signaling their indifference to an issue that threatens the validity of indigenous studies at Berkeley and beyond.”

The students previously dismissed Hoover’s apology as an attempt to garner “pity” and said it failed to address her multiple instances of “misconduct.” The alleged misconduct includes misrepresenting herself as Native American on grant and job applications, which “robbed Indigenous scholars of these opportunities.” Hoover admitted she misrepresented herself during research projects, including when she embedded herself in the Akwesasne Mohawk community in Northern New York for her dissertation on residents’ views on health and the environment.

Native American scholars also have dismissed Hoover’s explanation that she relied on family “lore” to bolster her belief that she was was Mohawk and Mi’kmaq, saying it was long her responsibility to use to professional research skills to confirm her ties to these tribes.

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The cases of Hoover and Smith demonstrate some of the reasons universities are reluctant to investigate faculty accused of ethnic fraud, scholars say. For one thing, it means administrators have to embrace what it means to be Native American, which isn’t a matter of someone self-identifying as such, said Wesley Leonard, a UC Riverside associate professor in ethnic studies, who signed the complaint against Smith. Instead, people must be enrolled in a tribe, which is akin to being a citizen of a sovereign nation, or they need to show a strong family connection to a tribe and to “be claimed by the community,” said Leonard, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

Technically, ethnic fraud can’t be a violation, because universities also must abide by federal laws that prevent consideration of race and ethnicity in hiring, promotion, and firing decisions, said Wesleyan American Studies professor J. Kehaulani Kauanui, a former friend of Smith’s from UC Santa Cruz who long urged her to come clean about not being Cherokee. But Kauanui explained that ethnic fraud still constitutes academic misconduct when scholars misrepresent themselves in their research work.

For these reasons alone, Hoover’s “enduring presence” at Berkeley is a problem, said Martin, one of the graduate students, eplaining, “Promoting this lack of research integrity by continuing to compensate her for her ethnic fraud will inevitably lead to a breakdown of Berkeley’s reputation and trustworthiness, something we can’t afford if we want to foster indigenous excellence in our communities and scholarship.”