The Birth of TCJ: Father’s curiosity launched Paul Boyer on his journey into Indian Country

Volume 21, No. 1 - Fall 2009
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TCJ FOUNDER. Paul Boyer, above right, produced and edited the Tribal College Journal from 1989 to 1995. (Photo by Hilary Boyer) ERNEST L. BOYER. Also referred to as “A leader of educators and educator of leaders,” the late Boyer, above left, published many works on education reform, including several Carnegie Foundation reports. (Photo courtesy of the Ernlest L. Boyer Center, Messiah College)

From its inception in 1988, the Tribal College Journal has been a family affair.

“I was just finishing up a master’s (degree), and around a dinner table my father said, ‘Would you be interested in getting some information on these (American Indian) colleges,’ and I said sure,” says Paul Boyer, the buoyant founder of the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) who published, produced, and edited the magazine until 1995.

The subsequent TCJ editor, Marjane Ambler, calls him a “visionary,” a description he adamantly disagrees with. Boyer says the magazine sprouted not from an idealistic plan but from a combination of his own youthful enthusiasm, the support and guidance of his late father, Ernest L. Boyer (then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching); and a supportive group of tribal college presidents who almost immediately embraced the magazine after its creation.

Since its start, TCJ has documented and reflected the Tribal College Movement on Native American reservations and a First Nations reserve and has also served as a forum for the social, political, and cultural trends in higher education. It has guided and mirrored important intellectual debates on educational models and critical discussions on pragmatic issues such as infrastructure and curriculum.

The magazine is also the sole public space where students, staff, faculty, administrators, and families across the system can communicate with one another and also voice their opinions, share their stories, and even air their concerns over their cherished institutions, which for many may be the best opportunity for their communities’ future successes.

At the beginning of the magazine’s journey, however, the then 22-year-old Boyer was not driven by lofty idealism but by his own curiosity, journalistic acumen, and – according to him – “I just thought it was fun.” At the time, he had a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Empire State College (New York) and a Master’s Degree in Mass Communications from California State University-Chico.

He recalls his mood at the magazine’s inception. “You are so young, and you have no responsibilities, and you’re sort of used to living like an undergraduate student still. You know, hey kids, let’s put on a play, my dad’s got a barn. You can make the costumes. It was just sort of like that. I had no big expectations for it to be a career; I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Father and Son Team

Ernest L. Boyer was the former chancellor of the State University of New York System and a prominent figure in higher education who was “always interested in Indian issues.” His son’s journey into Indian Country began when the elder Boyer suggested the unique assignment, taking him to American Indian reservations throughout the West to collect basic information such as curriculum, infrastructure, and funding on the tribal colleges.

“He had learned there were a number of small colleges run by Indians,” Boyer says. Although the first tribal college opened in 1968 and more than 20 others had opened by 1988, hardly anyone knew anything about them. “My father wanted to know more about them out of personal curiosity more than he wanted to do anything particular.”

After he accepted the informal “assignment,” it soon transformed into an intimate “father and son” project as well as a fact-finding mission. The younger Boyer sent letters to tribal colleges’ presidents throughout the country asking for basic information to conduct his study. Information slowly trickled in, and with this information in hand, the elder Boyer asked his son to go on the road and find out more about the schools and people who were struggling to educate their own communities in isolated areas with few resources.

“It was a great story to tell as a journalist – scrappy college makes good on Indian reservation and brings opportunity to places where unemployment is 80 percent,” Boyer says.

When he visited Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Montana, he toured a new TV station at the tribal college. A few weeks later he went to the Navajo Nation in Arizona and interviewed a man developing a television station at Navajo Community College. “I was surprised to learn that he didn’t know that SKC had a station up and running. No one told him, and he didn’t have an opportunity to meet with his colleagues at other tribal colleges,” he says.

The experience inspired him to consider starting a magazine so the colleges could learn from one another. Later he met with Sinte Gleska College President Lionel Bordeaux and broached his bold idea. Boyer realized he was on the right track when Bordeaux told him, “As a matter of fact, we thought of that, but we really don’t have anybody to do it.”

“Here’s this 22-year-old white kid from California who works for a foundation from New Jersey and never heard of Minot (ND) until two weeks ago, but I said, ‘Well, maybe I could do something for you.’”

One Whirlwind Year

Boyer had little professional experience: He had been editor of his college newspaper and completed several newspaper internships. He says, “My knowledge of Indians and Indian issues was not deep either.” Nevertheless, he met with the tribal college presidents and proposed creating a 24-page, black and white “sample” magazine called Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education. Friends and tribal college presidents helped with the first issue (Bordeaux wrote a lead essay on economic development and the tribal colleges), but Boyer wrote most of the articles himself.

At the same time, his father and the Carnegie Foundation decided to publish a policy report on the tribal colleges to be authored by Paul. When the Carnegie Foundation released the report (Tribal Colleges: Shaping the Future of Native America), it garnered national attention. “It was the first report to give visibility and credibility to the movement,” he says. “So it got major stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post. It was used by congressmen, and federal funding (for tribal colleges) actually went up for a couple of years.”

Shortly after that, in the summer of 1989, the first issue of the TCJ appeared. “It all happened in one whirlwind year,” Boyer says.

American Indian College Fund Provides a Boost

With a budget of $1,000 that he bankrolled himself, Boyer published the scrappy but ambitious magazine. Immediately, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) board voted to support the magazine and take it under its wing. Scant funding for the first year of publishing came from AIHEC, private foundations, advertising, and a handful of subscribers. However, it wasn’t until Barbara Bratone, executive director of the American Indian College Fund, met with Boyer the following year that the TCJ took another big step in its evolution.

The American Indian College Fund was just being started at the time. Bratone suggested that the journal be sent to all the donors of the college fund. “In essence the journal would be like a premium that donors would get for giving money to the College Fund. Instead of the College Fund starting their own publication, they just asked the journal to do it,” Boyer says.

The College Fund provided funds to produce the magazine and mail it to their donors. Literally overnight, the TCJ grew from 1,000 issues per quarter to 8,000 to 10,000 issues. The increase in volume meant that the cost of producing the magazine decreased while advertising rates could be increased. “That triggered growth in income,” Boyer says.

Boyer left the TCJ in 1995 to begin the next stage of his career as a writer and educational consultant and to enter a doctoral studies program. He authored Smart Parents Guide to College (Petersons Press, 1996) and in 1997 wrote a second Carnegie Foundation report titled Native American Colleges: Progress and Prospects. In 2001 he received a Ph.D. in Educational Theory and Policy from Pennsylvania State University.

Boyer is most appreciative of the confidence that the AIHEC board members showed him. Despite his brief journalistic résumé at the time, “they patiently let me go about the work of the journal, letting it grow as my skills grew,” he says. “Sometimes we need to patient and let ideas and projects mature. That group of presidents at that time and that era was very willing to do that. It was a special group and a special time in the history of the tribal colleges.”

Juan Avila Hernandez (Yoeme/Yoi) teaches Native American History and Media at Saint Mary’s College in the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California and reports on current topics of importance to the Native American community. He can be reached at

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