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Excerpt from the Plenary Panel “Strategies for Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling”

November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina

Excerpts from the Plenary Panel

Speaker: Carrie Billy, American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC)

Good afternoon. I work with tribal colleges and universities, which are American Indian institutions on Indian reservations, and I am not an educator.  I work largely on policy issues, but I did ask the women presidents of the tribal colleges for their thoughts, and I also offer some insight that I had on just thinking about the whole tribal college movement. First, I just want to mention one thing, I feel at home here, because when I was sitting in the back of the room, I noticed, if you look on the sides of the chairs along the isle, I’m sure that is a an American Indian design on the sides. It is probably something about the weather and growing corn. It was really great for me to come in here and see that, so I feel at home. For so long to American Indians, and American Indian women in particular, I think we did not even think about the glass ceiling, because we were just trying to get in the building in terms of education.

All tribal colleges are very young institutions. The oldest tribal college is less than forty years old. Tribal colleges were created for one reason: equality. Back in the 1960s a group of Navajo leaders, I am Navajo, noticed that, when they looked at the administration on their reservations, the doctors and nurses in the hospitals, the court systems that they were going through, they did not see any Navajos, or very few Indians of any type. Almost everyone was a non-Indian, so they thought “how can we change this? How do we begin to change this so that our children will at least have some equality with these people?”

That was the genesis of the tribal college movement. It is expressed by Navajos in certain ways, and also by Indians throughout the United States, I think very well by a Crow leader in particular who said: “with education we are the white mans equal, without it we are his victim.” Tribal colleges were created by American Indians for American Indians in their community, first on the Navajo reservation, and then throughout Indian Country. We now have thirty-five institutions in the United States and several in Canada that are part of the tribal college movement. The philosophy was very simple, and it stayed consistent for all tribal colleges. To succeed, American Indian education needed to be locally and culturally based, holistic, and supportive. It had to address the whole person, not just academics; the mind, body, and spirit, the family and the community, and it has worked.

As I said we have grown from one institution to thirty-five, and we have growing statistics on the number of people who are graduating from tribal colleges. For example, from Salish Kootenai College in Montana, prior to the establishment of that college, there were only five or six Salish Kootenai members who had actually graduated from college in 1974. Between 1974 and 1994 Salish Kootenai College alone had graduated four hundred tribal members, and now that number is in the thousands. Tribal colleges are making an impact in general on their reservations, and I think as we get into the second and third generation more will become leaders within the tribal college community, the higher education community in general, and throughout all the aspects of reservations and Indian life. We have done pretty well about getting people into college, to go to school, but we have not done that well in getting American Indians to become teachers or professors, even at tribal colleges. 

AIHEC does an annual data collection system that we developed specifically for tribal colleges to measure the success of our institutions in our own terms so we can report it to our funders and to our communities. The data for 2006 shows that of all the faculty at the tribal colleges, 22% of the faculty are American Indian Women, and 20% are American Indian Men, so for institutions that were created to be culturally based even we are not doing that well. It is even worse in main stream higher education. I think the percentage of American Indian female faculty at doctoral institutions is about .2%, and about .3% for American Indian men, so we have a lot of work to do just to become faculty before we can start thinking about becoming presidents.

Interestingly, one area were women at tribal colleges are doing very well is at the presidency at our institutions. Upper administrative management at tribal colleges right now is about 40% American Indian women, and 26% American Indian men. Among the tribal college presidents though, of the thirty-six institutions that comprise AHAC, in 1998 we had five or six female tribal college presidents. Today we have seventeen female presidents, and for the first time ever an American Indian woman, Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet, who was formally the President of Diné College, is actually the President of a main stream institution of higher education, Antioch University in Seattle. We are very happy about that so we are making some strides, but we have a lot of work to do.

Why are we able, at least within our community, to train and prepare so many female presidents? I asked the presidents about that, and Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet said “remember the tribal college mission and the foundation.” She said that “when you leave Diné College you know who you are as a Navajo person, and that gives you a core, a foundation of strength that stays with you in everything you do.” Several of these women actually were students at the tribal college who went on to get their bachelors degree, then masters and doctoral degrees. She believes that it is really because of that cultural grounding that people get at tribal colleges.

Another just sort of general reason, I think, is the same among all communities, and we’ve actually worked closely with several Hispanic serving institutions and historically black colleges on leadership development and other areas, and I think there are common areas among all, and one of them is networking. I was reading about the Faculty Resource Network, and I looked at the list of institutions, and I noticed to my shock that no tribal colleges are members. One thing we need to do is get more tribal colleges signed up so we can start getting the faculty more engaged, networking with themselves, but also networking with you, with faculty from other institutions, because I think we have so much that we can learn from each other. I hope we can continue to build a partnership here.

Another area, that we as tribal colleges need to devote more attention to, is growing our own, and you all are doing an excellent job of that, but we have not been. We have some tribal college presidents who have been at the same institution for twenty or thirty years, and that is really probably too long. There are probably some restless professors at those schools that are just being restless till they finally leave and go to a main stream institution, so we as tribal colleges have to devote more attention to growing our own. I think in general we really need to focus on supporting each other.

Another issue is communication. A woman who has gone through a leadership initiative training that we had with the Kellogg Foundation told me we need to understand and pay more attention to the cultural differences in communication to be successful, as well as personality differences. We need to know when to “code switch” she called it. This is something that needs to be proactively taught, particularly to indigenous people who might come from a different cultural grounding, and do not understand as well western and other ways of communication. I thought that was an interesting thing that we as Indian People need to pay attention to.

The last point that several of the tribal college presidents said was to have defined measures of success. Make a commitment, have a mission, and stay focused on your mission, have a plan for achieving your goals, and have measurable objectives so you can point to that success. I was wondering when you [Beverly Tatum] were talking about identifying people who might want to become presidents, I wanted to ask “well what are all the characteristics besides being restless?” Perhaps maybe one of the characteristics might be that you people know what you are doing, because you can measure your success and point to it. Related to that, one president told me always try to be optimistic, in face of all the challenges, and there are so many that we all face, always be optimistic, and try to remember to always speak positively about your institution.


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