‘Accidental’ president helped forge a movement

Volume 23, No. 3 - Spring 2012
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HONORED PRESIDENT. Retiring Fort Peck Community College President Jim Shanley was honored at the American Indian College Fund’s annual Flame of Hope Gala in October 2011. Photo by The Fund's Jaime Aguilar

Growing up on the Fort Peck Reservation in the 1960s, Jim Shanley knew he wanted to go to college, but career options were limited. He majored in education only because his sister was a teacher, and “teaching was just about the only ‘white collar’ profession available to Indians living on the rural Montana reservation,” he says.

“I didn’t even like education,” says Shanley.

But he soon grew to care a great deal about his accidental profession. In little more than a decade, he would become president of a tribal college and help shape Indian higher education nationwide. Now retired after 28 years as president of Fort Peck Community College (FPCC, Poplar, MT), Shanley’s contributions are felt not only at his own institution but also across the larger tribal college movement. Although he often shunned the limelight within the movement, he helped lead the institutions through some of their most difficult years and supported their emergence as stable and mature colleges and universities.

As a young man, however, he was simply trying to find his way in the world. As one of the first members of the Fort Peck Tribe to earn a college degree, he helped blaze a trail at a time when little support existed for Indian college students. He enrolled in Eastern Montana College before the era of U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs scholarships and arrived on campus with little experience outside his home community. Compared to the small town of Poplar, MT, “Billings was like Paris,” he recalls. Graduating in 1968 at the age of 21, his horizons expanded further when he was drafted and spent a year fighting in Vietnam.

By the time he returned home and completed his undergraduate degree, the first tribal and Indian-controlled colleges were taking root, first on the Navajo reservation and then in California and the Northern Plains. Shanley found a job as academic dean at United Tribes Employment Training Center (now United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND).

Eventually, he returned to school, this time earning a Master’s Degree in Education with a community education emphasis. On the strength of his graduate degree and administrative experience at United Tribes, he was appointed president of Standing Rock Community College (now Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, ND), another pioneering tribal college. Shanley admitted that he was young and inexperienced. “But,” he says, “we were all young and inexperienced.” What he and his peers lacked in credentials, they made up for in energy and anger at the status quo.

Training was on the job, yet the stakes were high. Without stable funding, national visibility, or accreditation, survival of the tribal colleges was always in doubt. Knowing they had to work together, early leaders founded the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) in 1973 to represent the collective interests of the member colleges. The consortium initially supported a small staff in Denver, but presidents were expected to take a major role in running the organization. Leadership roles were shared and, says Shanley, “Everyone had to take his turn in the barrel” by serving on the Executive Committee of the consortium’s board of directors.

As AIHEC Executive Committee president, Shanley, at the age of 29, found himself immersed in Washington politics, leading an effort to secure federal funding for the tribal college movement. Staying in cheap hotels and eating hot dogs from street vendors to save money, Shanley and his fellow presidents made repeated visits to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional staffers, testify in hearings, and explain why Congress should support a small group of tiny colleges on faraway reservations.

In this David and Goliath battle, the tribal colleges emerged victorious. They successfully wrote and oversaw passage of legislation authorizing annual funding to the tribal colleges. Actual appropriations were miserly, but the law helped the movement gain a measure of stability.

Shanley stepped away from the colleges for a few years to earn a Doctorate in Education Administration from the University of North Dakota. From 1980 to 1984, he directed the Southwest Indian Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center in Tempe, AZ. Then he returned home to Poplar —this time as president of Fort Peck Community College, where he remained for the next 28 years.

When he began his tenure, the tribal college consisted of one building, three degree programs, and 65 students. It was not yet accredited, nor was it even a candidate for accreditation. Funding was tight, and few community members understood the value of a college education. Today, the college has an average enrollment of 430 students, a growing campus, and offers a wide array of two-year programs.

But his influence on Indian higher education extends far beyond his own college. Shanley remained one of AIHEC’s most active board members and spent most of his career serving in some capacity on its Executive Committee. Over the years, he played a leading role in formation of the American Indian College Fund, which raises funds for student scholarships. He also helped win another key legislative victory in the 1990s when Congress designated the tribal colleges as Land Grant institutions.

These specific achievements, however, do not fully capture Shanley’s accomplishments as a leader. Shanley brought goodwill and unity to the AIHEC organization. When running meetings in his low-key manner, he always looked for ways to defuse tension. He remained focused on larger goals and emphasized common ground. He also exhibited a preternatural calm during even the most heated arguments.

These qualities of leadership were honed through years of experience, gleaned from a willingness to take responsibility for the hard, often unglamorous work of running a college and building an educational movement. Shanley hypothesizes that it also came from his Vietnam experience. “After having people shoot at you, it’s hard to get excited when people are yelling,” he says.

Still, Shanley does have some concerns for the future of the colleges. While they are strong and mature institutions, he worries that they are growing “a little too comfortable”—losing sight of the social change vision that animated the young visionaries who founded the first colleges. With a strong staff in Washington, today’s leaders are too easily lulled into complacency.

Tribal colleges were created by people who wanted to bring fundamental social change to impoverished and disenfranchised communities, says Shanley. Over the past 40 years, real improvements have been made. Despite gains, however, he notes that Fort Peck Reservation still has larger problems. Today’s tribal college leaders need to stay focused on their institution’s founding goals, he says.

However, Shanley has faith in the future. “I’m not stupid enough to believe that I accomplished the things that happened,” he says. “There was a larger force driving it… So I have great faith that things will move forward. That’s why I don’t mind retiring.”

As far as Shanley is concerned, it’s simply time for “the next generation to take their turn in the barrel.”

Dr. Paul Boyer is founding editor of the Tribal College Journal, which he edited and published from 1989 to 1997. He now works as a writer, researcher, and consultant, focusing on American Indian higher education and national education policy.

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