Transition at a Tribal College

March 25, 2010

Joe McDonald didn’t plan on staying at Salish Kootenai College for 32 years. That’s just the way it happened.

McDonald, who will turn 77 at the end of March, became the first president of the Montana tribal college in 1978 and has been its leader ever since. His retirement attempts at 65, 70 and 75 were all foiled by institutional uncertainty about finding a suitable replacement. When McDonald turned 70, the vice president who was supposed to take the reins was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently died.

Finding a new college president is never easy, but it is especially difficult for a tribal college when its board strongly prefers to tap someone who is not only Native American but also a member of its affiliated tribe. Such was the case at Salish Kootenai College, whose board wanted McDonald’s successor to be a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which share a home reservation.

Today, the two tribes have nearly 7,000 members, about 4,500 of whom live on the 1.317 million-acre Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana. Finding a sterling academic leader among them isn’t exactly an easy task, but it was one the college had to take on at around this time last year, just before McDonald turned 76 and announced his intent to retire – for real this time.

“I’m currently on a presidential search committee at the University of Montana, and most presidents from mid-level colleges and universities are often found in vice presidents from similar or major universities,” McDonald said. “The work will be very similar, so the transition won’t be all that big of a deal. But, when you want to get a president of a tribal college, there are no other tribal colleges [that serve the same tribe] for them to transition from, unless you’re grooming them on your own campus. It’s a big change for us, and these transitions at tribal colleges often cause a lot of shaking and struggling.”

Photo: Salish Kootenai College

Joe McDonald

Finding Leaders Close to Home

The overwhelming majority of tribal colleges are served by presidents who are members of their affiliated tribe. Of the 38 tribally charted institutions in the United States, 33 of them have presidents who are from the charter tribe, two of them have presidents who are Native American but not of the charter tribe and three of them have presidents who are not Native American.

The reason most boards wish to keep tribal college presidencies in the family is not only cultural but also realistic, acknowledging that there are likely few candidates with their institution as a career destination.

“Tribal colleges were created for tribes to educate their own people,” said Carrie L. Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the small sector’s main lobbying organization. “You’d hope that you’d have native people and tribal members to take those positions. While some tribal colleges do have national searches for their presidencies, they receive much fewer applications than other colleges do. These colleges are mostly in very rural, remote areas where, frankly, a lot of people just don’t want to live. Also, they don’t pay salaries that are comparable to other small colleges.”

Given these realities, tribal colleges naturally tend to attract presidential candidates who are already tribe members – and perhaps have left the reservation to teach at a mainstream institution – but also have a desire to return home and finish their careers serving their tribes.

“There are very few cases where presidents of tribal colleges go on to mainstream institutions,” Billy said. “Lots of people are always, it seems, looking to move up the ladder. And for a lot of people who are a tribal college president, that’s the highest point on the ladder.”

An exception to the rule, Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet became "the first Native American woman to ascend to the presidency of an accredited university outside the tribal college system" when she was named the president of Antioch University Seattle in 2007. She was previously the president of Diné College, located on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.

Photo: U. of Washington

Luana K. Ross

Next in Line

Luana K. Ross, women’s studies professor at the University of Washington, never thought she’d be a college president, but come July she’ll be just that, replacing the only president Salish Kootenai College has ever known.

Despite the close community shared by many tribe members – Ross is actually McDonald’s second cousin – Ross wasn’t even on the radar of the college's search committee. Indeed, Ross hadn’t lived or worked on the reservation since 1979. Still, one member of the college's locally-based search committee knew an ideal pick who likely wouldn't be attracted by its national advertising of the position.

“Last spring, I got a phone call out of the blue from my dear uncle, who was dying in the hospital at the time,” recalled Ross, who is 60. “He said, ‘You’ve got to come home. You’re my unfinished business.’ He told me to apply for this position and said that I was the best candidate and that there was no doubt that I would get the job.”

That call was in April of last year. Ross’ uncle passed away in May. Ross said she felt compelled to abide by her uncle’s wishes and return home.

“I come from a large extended family of about 500 relatives who are all very close-knit,” Ross said. “This is my nation. And so, I was away from my family, community and nation. Just like someone who is from another country, you pine in certain ways for your country and your people. I’ve been trying to work my way home for a while, anyway. When I took the job in Washington, I thought, ‘I’m getting closer.’ But, when I heard I got this job I was so happy, but it’s also pretty daunting.”

Before she came to Washington, Ross was a professor at the Universities of California at Davis and at Berkeley. Still, her only management experience is with Native Voices, a Washington graduate program in indigenous documentary film that she co-directs with her husband, Daniel Hart. Still, it’s not leadership skills Ross worries she lacks.

“I’m excited to go back and immerse myself in the language and culture again, but I worry that I may be too assimilated that I won’t fit back into my own community,” Ross said. “But, I feel I have so much to offer, having been at these flagship institutions. Still, I’ll need to sit for a year and see where the college is before I really dive in.”

Ross's goals include using her experience in film to help promote Salish Kootenai College, establishing an office of public relations and improving race relations in the local community, where white supremacist groups and Native Americans often collide.

Though he has no reason to expect that Ross will stay on as president as long as he has, McDonald did say he hoped Ross would be there at least a decade, given her age and strong connection to the community. His advice for her is simple, but he said it's been the key to his own longevity:

“Be kind and do your best.”

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