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A Tribal College Crumbles

August 23, 2006

D-Q University, near Sacramento, has long been one of the leaders of the American Indian tribal college movement. One of the first of the nation’s 34 tribal colleges, it has graduated hundreds of American Indian and non-Indian students since opening in the early 1970s.

Now, however, faced with steep financial and longstanding accreditation obstacles, the institution will more than likely have to shut its doors this fall. With only six students now enrolled -- and administrators, faculty and staff members, and money all but gone -- closing seems to be the only option on the table. Still, some educators expect that with much hard work and planning, a new tribal college will one day rise again in California.

“We were kind of forced to give up hope a while back,” said Cindy LaMarr, a former member of the university's governing board. “I could see it coming many years ago. Many people were fearful of attaching their name or reputation to the school.

“It’s a big frustration,” added LaMarr, director of Capitol Area Indian Resources, an academic assistance group for Indian youth in Sacramento. “I know it was a last chance for some Indian students to get an education.”

The university’s low enrollment and dwindling finances, which LaMarr and others attribute to a lack of skilled management over many years, led the Western Association of Schools and Colleges to revoke D-Q's accreditation in January 2005. In turn, federal financial aid was no longer available to students.

Many students stopped applying and attending after the accreditation decision. Those familiar with the situation at D-Q said, too, that the institution had been having difficulties reaching out to Indian students before the accreditation issue ever arose.

Problems that prompt a revoked accreditation often are often so severe that the chances of recovering are exceptionally poor, according to Barbara Beno, president of the Accrediting Commission for Community Colleges at the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. “In a sense, it continues a broken ball rolling in motion,” she said. “And students are pretty savvy about knowing they need accredited credits to transfer to another school.”

Elmer Guy, president of the Crownpoint Institute of Technology, in New Mexico, said that D-Q's situation has had a negative effect on people’s perceptions of tribal colleges and other such institutions. “I’m worried that students and others might think that minority serving institutions have a hard time meeting rigorous educational standards,” he said.

Rather than focusing on the bleakness of the situation, many Native American educators say that this is a critical time to think about ways to support other tribal colleges and their missions to educate and infuse cultural elements into their curricula.

“We all have to understand how important tribal colleges are,” said Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana (Little Hoop) Community College, in Fort Totten, N.D. She added that the colleges have been “instrumental” in helping students learn Native American languages that “could have been lost forever” with the passing of elders.

They’ve also helped many students earn valuable two-year degrees that have helped them transfer on to four-year institutions and graduate with bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, she said. “Tribal colleges are a ray of hope, offering culturally relevant opportunities for thousands of Indians across the U.S,” said Lindquist.

Some experts in the tribal college field have ideas for how an Indian-focused institution can eventually forge a comeback in California. But they don't necessarly believe that D-Q University itself will be the incarnation. LaMarr, for instance, has already formed a group of volunteers and past officials associated with D-Q University who have turned their sights on establishing a new tribal college. Their efforts have resulted in the California Tribal University, which is currently an incorporated nonprofit group.

“We’re in the process of creating a plan,” said LaMarr. She said that the group envisions a multi-branch institution with a heavy focus on Internet education.

“People have to understand that you just don’t announce it and then it opens a month later,” she said. “I’m just telling people to hang in there.”

Lindquist believes that in all new efforts tribal support will be crucial. “If a tribe is fortunate enough to have resources to support a tribal college, that’s an important path to pursue,” she said. The colleges currently depend on a limited amount of federal funding each year, with some receiving extra support from their tribes.

“We also need more Native Americans with the financial credentials necessary to work at our institutions,” said Lindquist.

David Beaulieu, a board member with the National Indian Education Association and director of the Center for Indian Studies at Arizona State University, said that future developments should focus on articulation agreements with community and state colleges.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this issue is solvable,” he added. “It’s only a matter of time and a few committed individuals.”

 

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