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Time of Transition at United Tribes
April 4 2014


By Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota)

           The year 2014 will go down as a time of transition and change for United Tribes Technical College. This year marks the 45th year this intertribal organization has served the educational needs of Native students and their families. For nearly 37 of those years, Dr. David M. Gipp had been the leader of this institution. That means he guided the college’s growth and development for over 80 percent of the time of its entire existence. That long and distinguished tenure is almost unprecedented in the field. Dr. Gipp shaped United Tribes into one of the nation’s premier tribal colleges.

But now he has a new role. In January, the board named him the college’s interim chancellor, allowing him to focus on the challenges of growth and development and securing the college’s future at a time of declining support from federal funding sources.

           As you know, my current assignment is to serve the college as interim president for several months until a new president is selected to lead. A search and selection process is underway now. All who are associated with United Tribes – students, staff and faculty, friends of the college in the community, and supporters throughout Indian Country and around the nation – can rest assured that the college’s board has the best interests of the college at heart as it guides this organization through change.

            Change is often scary. It’s one of those things we’re supposed to get used to, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. So, it’s worth considering what’s in store for us at United Tribes. What kind of change awaits us in our 21st Century world of Tribally-controlled education?

CHANGING LANDSCAPE

           In higher education today a premium is placed on going beyond merely providing access to postsecondary education. It isn’t enough now to just open the gates to a higher education. We’re challenged to focus on completion and preparation for what comes beyond graduation. An individual can no longer pursue knowledge for knowledge sake, nor can the learning be self-paced. Colleges and universities are under pressure to graduate students with credentials in a shorter time period. Students must finish what they start. Metrics and data are required to provide evidence of student success, or else be labeled as “ineffective” or “inefficient.”

           Never mind that TCUs serve students from some of the poorest communities in the U.S. And forget about the lack of parity in postsecondary resources. Today there’s little public tolerance for conversations that involve asking for more money, to help what one higher education report called the “Underfunded Miracles.”

CUSTOMER SERVICE

            Another change we face is the diversity of our student learners. They still come in all ages from mostly reservation-based communities. But TCUs are enrolling a younger generation, impacted by constant technology changes over the last 25 years. These are the “Digital Natives who are Native,” armed with I-pads and I-Phones with dozens of electronic applications.

           As a result, the TCU learner now is communicating and processing information differently, and expecting to be taught differently. Forget the lecture and textbook. Contemporary students are high level multi-taskers. They want hands-on, experiential learning, allowing them to seek out and shape what motivates them.

            Education is challenged to be like the gaming and entertainment world: it’s all about the experience. Future TCU academic programs, student services and delivery schedules will need to adapt. Customer service remains essential. Without a unique first semester experience in college or workforce training, student retention and completion rates will suffer. And again, the TCUs will be held accountable, without the resources, to address the higher levels of service and engagement required.

ACCREDITATION DILEMA

           When it comes to accountability there are many forms. Program certification and federal grant management are very important but one of the main challenges for education leaders today is how to cope with institutional accreditation. At the time of their origins, most TCUs partnered with a mainstream institution (or in recent times with another TCU) for accreditation purposes, since federal student financial aid programs required this credential. It was also needed for transferring course credit and to demonstrate credibility for fund-raising.

           After forty years, TCUs have evolved to meet and maintain this mainstream standard. Tribal education leaders have worked exceptionally hard to attain their highly-coveted accreditation status that proves TCUs are “the real deal,” when it comes to education. TCU programs also earn special certifications based on external standards of state boards and professional organizations. But what is the price?

            TCUs were founded to preserve and promote Tribal sovereignty, culture, language and self-determination. They established and cultivated culturally-relevant curricula to support the goal of maintaining cultural identity and self-esteem. They tried to integrate and imbed cultural knowledge and wisdom throughout the coursework.

            But the reality today is that the many Indian Tribes and Native communities are witnessing the loss of parent languages and indigenous cultural behaviors at an alarming pace. Many Tribes do not have their own college. For those that do, they’re seeing that external accreditation and program certification have forced them to re-order their educational priorities. Tribal cultural revitalization, along with Tribal sovereignty is subordinated to other standards. The Tribally-controlled educational experience continues to be dictated-to and evaluated by outside forces.

NEW REALITIES

           The future for Tribal higher education is certainly challenging. Future TCU leaders must take into account the new realities that have evolved. And more challenges are emerging all the time:

  • More sophisticated financial management with special attention on asset/debt ratios, student financial aid, and decentralized budgeting allocations of resources
  • More intensive review of institutional data for program prioritization, strategic planning, and timely decision-making
  • Continued assessment of technology capacities and infrastructures for teaching, data collection, financial management and communications
  • Stronger partnerships and networking among TCUs and with other entities to leverage expertise and educational resources

KEEP THE FAITH

           Despite the challenges and changes, there are some things that endure. TCUs were founded on the vision, aspirations and prayers of our Native ancestors. During times of change, we must remain faithful to our Tribal origins. We must remember to offer our gratitude and prayers to seek help from those who paved the way for our life journeys.

            As we prepare for this year of change, we must be mindful that whatever we do today is not for ourselves; what we do is for the children, the grandchildren and those yet come.

           Mitakuye oyasin (All My Relations)
Dr. Phil Baird presently serves as Interim President of United Tribes in addition to his duties as the college’s Vice President of Academic, Career & Technical Education.
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