Tribal Colleges: The Original Extreme Makeover Experts

Volume 26, No. 4 - Summer 2015
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I like to think that here in Indian Country we are experts at problem- solving and are the originators of the extreme makeover. Our experience with education is a prime example. Educational institutions were introduced to our people in an outrageous manner—often as a mask for assimilating American Indians, routinely resulting in alienation. Then our Native students gained admission to mainstream universities. Some flourished. Far too many failed or self-selected out because they did not fit in. Others were ill-prepared or missed families and a sense of support. Many rejected curricula that did not speak to their experiences and values.

To solve these problems, we have created tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). Today, our tribally governed learning centers provide the science, technology, disciplinary learning, and professional studies our students need to participate fully in modern life. The significant difference is that TCUs also offer our students confidence in who they are as tribal people and what their tribes truly represent. At TCUs, Native students can talk freely about Native issues and values, and find in-depth study in Indian history, literature, plays, ceremonies, and art.

As our TCUs are practicing self-determination in their approach to higher learning, they are simultaneously considering their fit within the national accreditation process. For the College of Menominee Nation (CMN), where I serve on the faculty, accreditation is through the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). The criteria for accreditation that HLC sets are designed to provide assurance that curriculum, resources, and processes meet standards that serve students and other stakeholders. The welcome benefits that accrue from accreditation include increased eligibility for funding and formal recognition of degree programs. The scrutiny of the accreditation process may feel less welcome.

Along with teaching at CMN, I am one of the few Native persons working as an HLC peer reviewer. When making visits to tribal colleges with review-team colleagues from major universities, I see how they struggle to understand our ways. They try hard to be unbiased, yet their life experience is so very different from ours that TCU models often do not translate.

The challenge, as I have come to see it, is in finding a common language in which they can understand how we too address our needs and value systems. For us, the challenge is assuring that our TCUs benefit from accreditation without surrendering our governance models, culture, and unique tribal college approaches.

At CMN, we have found accommodation and a common language through HLC’s Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP), which emphasizes the principles of continuous quality improvement and aims to help institutions achieve those objectives. In 2009, CMN became the first tribal college to begin on the AQIP pathway. Rather than the massive periodic report required under the traditional accreditation model, we now do ongoing work on at least three action projects on various topics and complete a portfolio on a four-year cycle. One project is always on helping students learn, while other projects focus on developing integrated processes. The portfolios we produce demonstrate that we can achieve measurable outcomes and make improvements to these processes.

CMN’s first four action projects were completed in time for the college’s 2013–2014 accreditation review in October 2013. In March 2014, HLC approved CMN for a new eight-year AQIP cycle. The way we “do” AQIP is now part of our governance structure. It is a comfortable adaptation for us since it reflects a way of working together that Indian people have been doing forever, with broadly based participation and group problem-solving.

Is the accreditation system flawless? Certainly not. But as CMN has learned, the AQIP model offers self-determination and problem- solving processes that are compatible with the governance traditions of a sovereign nation. And as I have learned in my peer reviewer role, we have it within our power to problem-solve within our accrediting agencies, to advance a common language, and to continue achieving the success we desire. The makeovers that come about will be not only in our TCUs, but also in the minds of external evaluators as they come to understand the transformative power of the TCU model for Native people.

Donna Powless, Ph.D. (Oneida Nation), is a faculty member at the College of Menominee Nation and one of the few American Indians serving as a peer reviewer for the Higher Learning Commission.


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