In the Shadow of Sequestration

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JAMES SHANLEY. Former president of Fort Peck Community College. TCJ file photo

With the current sequestration crisis, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are facing some basic immediate and long-range financial problems that will require astute planning, analysis, and budgeting. TCUs have long depended upon the good will of the U.S. Congress for basic operating funds. Up until now, that relationship has helped the colleges to survive and grow. Unfortunately, Congress has virtually ground to a halt because of obstructionist politics, and sequestration has upended the status quo. A total budget has not been passed in five years. One can always hope for the future, but it looks highly unlikely that there will be any movement before the 2014 elections.

In the foreseeable future, things are going to get worse, not better. TCUs can look forward to two, possibly three years of continued cuts to Tribally Controlled Colleges Assistance Act monies, Title III, Carl Perkins, and various competitive grant programs that have provided resources in the past. It will be hard to convince people who are willing to take food stamps away from some of the neediest in the country that educational opportunity is important and needs funding.

Many TCUs will be faced with immediate problems this school year. Student enrollments are down, in part due to the economy, but also due to windfalls that some tribes received from the Cobell v. Salazar settlement. That money has pretty much evaporated and will never be seen in Indian Country again.

To address the problem, most tribal colleges will have to start cutting budgets now. For TCUs with sound planning and budgeting systems in place, the budget cuts will start small. However, for those colleges that have lived hand-to-mouth, things will be much more difficult. The budget cuts this year will be manageable. But make no mistake, the next two years—or even longer—will test the will of TCUs to survive.

In order to cope with sequestration, a college must ask, “What are the essential services that the institution needs to meet its mission?” A simplified approach might break the cuts into the following categories:

1.)    Non-essential costs, including travel. With technology that enables video conferencing, all travel should be absolutely necessary. This includes travel from grant programs, as monies can be re-budgeted into direct services. Another non-essential cost is supplies and materials. All organizations tend to use more consumable goods than they actually need. Try to conserve in this area. Other miscellaneous, non-essential costs include almost anything from vehicle replacement to maintenance. Judgment is required to determine if purchases can be delayed or postponed.

2.)    Facilities. Many tribal colleges are short on space, but others are not. Either way, facilities are costly to heat/cool and maintain. Consolidation of space can help, as can energy audits and conservation.

3.)    Personnel. Most fringe benefits are fixed; however, health insurance (if it is offered) is a ratcheting expense. Employees, management, and boards must work together to reduce these costs. There are many variables, and lower-cost options can often be found. Similarly, pay increases must be postponed. As far as the people themselves, it’s important to remember that employees are the main strength of TCUs. Great care should be taken if there is a need to reduce faculty or staff. Options might include furloughs, nine- or ten-month contracts, shortened work weeks, consolidation of job descriptions, contracting, and adjunct instruction. If at all possible, decisions affecting faculty and staff should be made with the utmost transparency and with employee participation.

In the budget-cutting process, the foremost goal for this fiscal year should be to come in next year in the black. During this whole process, TCUs need to maintain good public relations, good retention and recruitment, and they need to be politically active. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the American Indian College Fund will be more important than ever in the fight to come. Good Luck.

James Shanley, Ed.D. (Assiniboine Sioux), has been a leader in the tribal college movement for over 40 years. He served as president of Standing Rock College (now Sitting Bull College, Fort Yates, ND) from 1975 to 1980, and as president of Fort Peck Community College (Poplar, MT) from 1984 to 2011. Dr. Shanley is also a past president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, helping to secure passage of the Tribally Controlled Community Colleges Assistance Act of 1978.

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