Fostering the Intellectual and Tribal Spirit: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer

Volume 26, No. 4 - Summer 2015
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Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) play a critical role in American Indian communities. As the primary postsecondary institutions in Indian Country, TCUs served nearly 20,000 college students and over 47,000 community members in 2010 (American Indian Higher Education Consortium, 2012). Since the establishment of Navajo Community College as the first tribal college in 1968, TCUs have sought to develop their own institutional systems that incorporate culturally based leadership to serve local and regional American Indian communities.

There is one academic leadership role within the TCU environment whose importance cannot be overstated: the chief academic officer (CAO). Also referred to as the academic vice-president, academic dean, or the provost, the CAO is responsible for the development and implementation of all academic programs, including the curriculum content, assessment, instruction quality, instructional delivery methods, and so forth. The leadership of an effective CAO ensures students receive a quality educational experience that prepares them for advanced degrees and the workforce. Academic quality and effective pedagogy depend on this position.

The purpose of a college is to provide postsecondary education to students. In economic terms, the product that a college or university sells is “an education,” which is embodied by the completion of a certificate or degree program. The CAO is responsible for the overall academic integrity of an institution’s degree programs and learner outcomes. The college must meet and maintain accreditation standards, as well as respective industry standards within specific disciplines— essential duties of the CAO. In addition, CAOs have direct responsibility for the integration of a tribal college’s unique mission, ensuring that the culture(s) and language(s) of their chartering tribal government is/are incorporated throughout the curriculum.

A 2002 study found that the CAO oversees the largest budget in an institution of higher education, manages personnel processes, plays a critical role in facilities and technology planning, influences curricula, oversees strategic planning, and fills in for the chief executive officer when needed (Lambert, 2002). It is not unusual to have the CAO also serve as the accreditation liaison officer who acts as the point of contact in maintaining an effective relationship with the regional accrediting agency. Essentially, there is no aspect of the internal operations within the higher education institution that is beyond the CAO’s role and responsibilities.

The job requirements for a CAO typically include a minimum of a master’s degree from an accredited institution in a relevant discipline, evidence of increasing administrative responsibilities, and a minimum of five years of experience in higher education. The range of responsibilities is extensive and includes but is not limited to leading and developing faculty with ongoing assessment of teaching and learning, evaluating faculty performance, providing students with enriching co-curricular experiences (e.g., career and academic advising), fostering a culture of higher education on campus, achieving student retention and graduation rate goals, working closely with the registrar in scheduling classes and establishing the academic calendar, developing and managing academic budgets, coordinating commencement, and overseeing the college catalog and faculty handbook (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2013).

First, and foremost, the CAO is responsible for providing the leadership to ensure quality academic programs and maintain institutional integrity. In a 2009 survey, the American Council on Education reported that 56% of CAOs believed “promoting academic quality” was the most important aspect of their job (Eckel et al., 2009, p. 8). Working collaboratively with faculty members and department chairs, the CAO must ensure a strong general education program with clear and measureable learner outcomes. In addition, every academic program offered must be clearly articulated. In each discipline, academic programs must be reviewed to ensure that all elements of the program are covered without unnecessary duplication of curriculum materials. Processes must be in place for the proposal of new programs, the development of new coursework, and the collection of data to analyze and use to improve academic offerings. Continuous improvement has become the norm within higher education and at least one accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission, has established improvement as a guiding value in the criteria for accreditation (Higher Learning Commission, 2013).

The role of the CAO at tribal colleges is even more complex, because of the relatively small size of most TCUs. Even though a college may have just 250 students, all of these same basic responsibilities must be addressed by the CAO. There is a relatively flat administrative hierarchy within these small colleges, and generally, academic departments consist of one or two faculty members, with one of these instructors also serving as department chair. Relatively few of the tribal colleges have deans within discipline areas (e.g., dean of education) and therefore the CAO must work collaboratively and effectively throughout the college in order to complete tasks and accomplish goals. The CAO must be a strong voice within the senior leadership of the college to advocate, promote, and support academics at the institution.

It is essential for the CAO to work collaboratively with department heads, faculty members, and committees such as those that handle curriculum, instruction, and assessment. It is the CAO’s responsibility to facilitate the institutionalization of academic processes and timelines. For example, if all academic programs are to be reviewed on a three-year cycle, the CAO must schedule, record, communicate, and adhere to the review process. And the CAO must ensure that all meeting minutes are maintained and filed on a readily accessible site.

CAOs at TCUs also play a critical role in ensuring that culture and language needs are met and integrated throughout the college’s curriculum. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the CAO to be fully knowledgeable of the culture(s) and language(s) represented at his/her institution. Curricula should be offered through the lens of the tribal worldview to the greatest degree possible. Every class should be offered in a manner reflective of the values, mores, and expectations of the tribal nation that the college represents. The structure within the academic affairs division should be reflective of the tribal culture and meet the expectations of the regional accrediting agency. These are not easy requirements, as every situation needs to be analyzed within a cultural perspective. It is through engagement with the community and each individual’s own acculturation process that effective TCU leadership can be achieved. This holds true for both Native and non-Native CAOs. Tribal colleges pride themselves on the development of their tribal intellectual capital, and faculty development is an important aspect of that process. CAOs are responsible for facilitating the development of each of the faculty members teaching at their institutions— from professional development sessions on campus to supporting faculty who seek graduate degrees. This support goes beyond writing letters of reference for individual instructors. CAOs schedule classes to allow faculty time to pursue their graduate studies and research endeavors. They devote time to finding temporary or part-time replacement faculty when necessary, and they often assume some advising responsibilities.

And yet the number of employees which the CAO supervises requires a significant time commitment. It is estimated that 57% of a CAO’s time is devoted to the supervision and management of personnel (Eckel et al., 2009). For tribal colleges, the time devoted to supervision and management of personnel becomes even more complex with the necessary reliance on grant-funded projects, which may account for as much as 65% of the college’s operating revenue (Sitting Bull College, 2013). Each successfully funded grant project requires administrative oversight that ultimately falls on the shoulders of the CAO. For example, a humanities faculty member may be responsible for completing key elements in a grant-funded project, so that in addition to overseeing teaching duties, the CAO must ensure that other aspects of the instructor’s role are carried out effectively. In some cases, the CAO serves as the grant project director, which requires program reports, data collection, and other administrative responsibilities that add to the CAO’s supervisory responsibilities.


In August 2014, tribal college CAOs met at Salish Kootenai College to network and discuss governance strategies.

Another crucial job duty of the CAO is that as the liaison between the college and the regional accreditation agency. In this role, the CAO must stay abreast of any changes in accreditation requirements and keep his/her faculty and administrative colleagues informed. In addition to regional accreditation, higher education institutions must also meet industry standards to ensure that their students are competent in the necessary areas when they graduate.

Given that tribal colleges are and always have been strong advocates for student success, it is vital that TCUs produce successful tribal and non-tribal citizens. Nationally, improving retention and degree completion statistics is recognized as one of the top challenges in higher education (Green et al., 2012). Unfortunately, more often than not, colleges relegate responsibility for retention and graduation to one person—the CAO. Several tribal college CAOs have established measureable retention plans. They compile and share clear baseline data, calculating the number of students retained over recent years and their level of persistence in critical classes. Such baseline information allows the TCU to establish targeted numeric goals for recruitment, retention, and persistence. Areas of need (such as effective academic advising or personal counseling) are identified and addressed by the college. A retention plan with measureable goals is an essential starting point leading to the development of a broader enrollment management plan. Such planning ties together academic program reviews, student-services activities and accomplishments, education costs, and community engagement. For example, Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation developed an enrollment management plan with the express purpose to “actively recruit, enroll, and support a diverse student body that meets the overall strategic plan of the college; and promotes student retention and completion rates. The Enrollment Management Plan will include a strategy for marketing, recruitment, retention, financial aid, and data collection and reporting” (Sitting Bull College, 2012).

And retaining CAOs themselves has proven to be a challenge. Tribal colleges have a strong commitment to developing their own tribal members for key leadership and faculty positions. However, there is a great deal of instability among CAOs at TCUs nationwide. Between 2012 and 2013, 16 TCUs reported new CAOs—a 43% turnover rate (His Horse Is Thunder, 2011-2014). Moreover, approximately 70% of these new CAOs were relatively new to this role within the institution (His Horse Is Thunder, 2011-2014). This is an alarming rate of change considering the importance of this position to the continuity of quality academic programs and assessment. Such turnover may also affect an institution’s accreditation, especially when the CAO serves as the liaison with the regional accrediting association. Each new CAO will have his or her own areas of interest and strengths, which can be very different from the previous CAO. Continuous and frequent changes in this key leadership role destabilize an institution.

The role of the CAO is demanding and complex. The tribal college or university is incumbent on this institutional leader to foster an academic environment that promotes integrity and to exercise leadership in data management, classroom curriculum delivery, facilities, assessment, grant oversight, and a myriad of additional challenges. Lambert (2002) argues that CAOs not only must effectively advocate on several levels, but that they must also be tough, as they have hard decisions to make. Such rigor, Lambert adds, necessitates that a CAO must also have a sense of humor. Such is the role of the CAO. It is a position that is highly demanding, but in the end can be equally rewarding.

Deborah His Horse Is Thunder, Ed.D. (Nakoda), is the CEO of Wiya & Associates, LLC, and has served as a chief academic officer at three tribal colleges. REFERENCES

American Indian Higher Education Consortium. (2012). Sharing Our Stories – Strengthening Our Nations Through Tribal Education: 2009-2010 AIHEC AIMS Fact Book. Alexandria, VA: American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Chronicle of Higher Education. (2013). Vitae, a service of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved November 7, 2013, from rZmm2sHt.dpuf-

Eckel, P.D., Cook, B.J., & King, J.E. (2009). The CAO Census: A National Profile of Chief Academic Officers. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education.

Green, K.C., Jaschik, S., & Lederman, D. (2012). The 2011–2012 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College & University Chief Academic Officers. Retrieved from news/survey/mixed-grades-survey-provosts

Higher Learning Commission. (2013). The Criteria for Accreditation: Guiding Values. Retrieved November 2013, from guiding-values-new-criteria-for-accreditation.html

His Horse Is Thunder, D. (2011-2014). Personal Records.

Lambert, L.M. (2002). Chief Academic Officers. In R.M. Diamond (Ed.), Field Guide to Academic Leadership: A Publication of the National Academy for Academic Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sitting Bull College. (2012). Sitting Bull College 2012–2017 Enrollment Management Plan. Fort Yates, ND: Sitting Bull College.

Sitting Bull College. (2013). Sitting Bull College 2012 Annual Report. Fort Yates, ND: Sitting Bull College.

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