One of the longest-serving presidents in the history of the tribal college movement has retired. Dr. S. Verna Fowler was hired by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin in 1992 to establish a tribal college for the community. Fowler opened the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) in January 1993, with 42 adult students taking general education courses in rented rooms. Today, CMN is an accredited baccalaureate- level institution, serving several hundred students on two campuses in Keshena and Green Bay. “It’s been a wonderful life. I have a lot to be grateful for,” says Fowler.
Since 1964, Fowler has worked as an educator and administrator at every level, from elementary through higher education. She is a Stockbridge-Munsee descendant and an enrolled member of the Menominee tribe. Born and raised on the Menominee reservation, Fowler entered a religious order and graduated from the convent college, now called Silver Lake College. She did further studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and the University of San Francisco. During her time in the nation’s capital, Fowler was a part of the Menominee restoration movement. The successful reversal of the termination of the Menominee tribe had sweeping implications for all American Indian communities.
Fowler subsequently earned a master’s degree in education and a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota, which honored her in 2010 with its Alumni Achievement Award. In the same year, she was the recipient of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s George Washington Carver Award for work in the field of agricultural development in Third World countries. In recognition of her achievements, two University of Wisconsin institutions have awarded Fowler honorary doctorates.
Active nationally, Fowler has had long tenures on the boards of the American Indian College Fund and American Indian Higher Education Consortium; she has been a trustee for the Higher Learning Commission and, following an initial appointment by President Bill Clinton and reappointment by President George W. Bush, she served on the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities. Fowler says that what she has admired most about CMN’s students is their spirit of perseverance: “They do not give up. I will see them in the store and they will say, ‘I’ll be back next year. I had to take a semester off to earn money, but I’m coming back.’ That’s inspirational.” For
Fowler, such personal persistence is critical in a reservation community working toward greater economic stability and improved quality of life. “When we see our graduates doing outstanding work in tribal administration or becoming entrepreneurs here on the reservation, we know that the quality education they received here has helped them succeed,” she says.
During Fowler’s tenure as president, CMN has used two messages that speak to the college’s role: “Nation building— one student at a time” and “Why wait?” “Isn’t that what TCUs are all about?” she observes. “We’re here to give our people access to the knowledge, skills, and credentials that will help them build stronger nations and gain better lives for their families. And we are doing it not in some distant tomorrow, but right now.”
Dr. Verna Fowler, a giant in the tribal college movement, retires after building an enterprise that today employs more than 130 faculty and staff, claims more than 1,100 alumni, has an estimated annual economic impact of $37 million in its service region, and is dedicated to the goal of nation building—one student at a time.