There had been accusations for at least 15 years that Andrea Smith, a prominent ethnic studies professor, had falsely claimed to be Native American. Her scholarship was partly built on what she said was her Cherokee identity, but she never publicly — and scholars and former friends say, privately — offered a detailed explanation for her Cherokee claims.
Now, after a recent complaint by 13 faculty members, Professor Smith has agreed to retire from the University of California, Riverside, next year in an unusual separation agreement.
Signed in January, the agreement avoids an investigation into the faculty complaint, which accused her of false claims of Native identity that violated academic integrity. And it allows the university to sidestep legal battles that often come from firing tenured professors.
Dr. Smith can keep her position through August 2024 and will be allowed to teach classes until then. She will retain her retirement benefits and will have the honorary emeritus title, though that status will not be listed in the university’s directory. Riverside will pay up to $5,000 toward her legal costs of resolving the complaint.
“The negotiated separation agreement brings a timely conclusion to Professor Smith’s continued employment with the university,” John D. Warren, a university spokesman, said in a statement. “Investigations of a tenured faculty member for alleged misconduct have potential for litigation and appeals, and can unfold over the course of years.”
Professor Smith, who is not registered as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, did not respond to messages seeking comment. But in 2015, she posted a statement in which she lamented “violent identity policing.”
“I have always been, and will always be Cherokee,” she wrote. “I have consistently identified myself based on what I knew to be true.”
While some Native scholars said the agreement was the first real accountability that Dr. Smith faced for her identity claims, they also lamented that the professor did not acknowledge deception.
And, they said, the university, in agreeing to not look into the accusations, allowed Dr. Smith to, yet again, evade a reckoning.
“She deflects, angles and wriggles — and here it is again,” said Philip Deloria, a professor at Harvard who studies Native American history and was Professor Smith’s colleague while the two were at the University of Michigan.
Andrew J. Jolivétte, chair of the ethnic studies department at University of California, San Diego, said that Ms. Smith’s lack of tribal enrollment should not be used as a cudgel against her.
“The focus on individuals who are unenrolled by enrolled citizens does not serve Indian country,” he said. “Our time would be better served caring for our communities rather than worrying about individual cases of identity.”
Earlier in her career, Professor Smith herself called out white feminists for hijacking Native identities.
White feminists “often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness,” Professor Smith wrote in a heralded 1991 essay. “They do this by opting to ‘become Indian.’ In this way, they can escape responsibility and accountability for white racism.”
Public questions about Ms. Smith’s identity began in 2008, after
she was denied tenure at the University of Michigan, causing an uproar. Her supporters held a one-day conference, with Dr. Smith’s dissertation adviser, Angela Davis, as a guest speaker. A news release described Dr. Smith as “one of the greatest Indigenous feminist intellectuals of our time.” Dr. Davis did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The conflict drew the attention of Steve Russell, a Cherokee academic who learned that she was not enrolled as a Cherokee but wrote a column for Indian Country Today.
By the fall of 2008, Ms. Smith had a new job at Riverside, but the accusations did not go away.
A lengthy story in The New York Times Magazine in 2021 brought further attention to Ms. Smith’s claims. Four months later, Chancellor Kim Wilcox released a cryptic statement to the campus insisting on “transparency and integrity in matters of indigenous affiliation and identity.”
But the Riverside action came after a faculty complaint in August 2022. One professor, Gerald Clarke, from the ethnic studies department, said in an interview that he was compelled to raise the issue because of the damage false claims of identity do to tribal communities.
“Identities are one of the last things we have that are precious and that we have control over,” said Mr. Clarke, a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians.