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To Be or Not To Be?
By Dr. Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota), VP Academic, Career and Technical Education

01 March 2010

BISMARCK (UTN) - Accreditation is one of the touchstones in all of education. In the field of tribal higher education, accreditation has been a two-edged sword, a defining and dividing issue for tribal colleges and universities.

      At the heart of accreditation in the tribal setting is the question of what standards of measurement should be used to validate the educational value, strength and integrity of tribal colleges and universities (TCUs)? By whose metrics should these unique educational institutions be measured?

Phil Baird

      Questions about accreditation have been around almost from the start when the TCUs were established over 40 years ago. Many were the recipients of well-intended assistance through “arrangements” with mainstream postsecondary institutions. This was done to offer a template for organizing academic programs and student services and to facilitate the transfer and acceptance of student grades and credits by other colleges.

      As time when on and TCUs disengaged from these partnerships to become independent colleges, accreditation status became a crucial question, particularly when being considered for federal funding. Eligibility requirements for grants said TCUs had to be accredited institutions or candidates for accreditation. Thus, accreditation has been a pathway dictated by the federal government since it approves the list of those associations (such as the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges) that provide accreditation.

      When TCUs began to pursue mainstream accreditation status, a myriad of problems and challenges emerged. These included questions about student learning assessment methodologies, availability of full-time faculty, educational program priorities, facilities and learning environments, financial stability and decentralized learning sites, to name a few.

      Initial accreditation experiences for many tribal colleges were disappointing. TCU leaders watched as consultant-evaluators from accrediting associations and professional organizations expressed difficulty seeing a “real higher learning institution” with no residential campus, classes taught in trailers and church basements, students from the poorest counties in the country, instructors and staff who volunteered or were paid with minimal compensation, and an institutional priority for advancing Native language and culture as part of higher education learning.

      These beginning accreditation experiences sparked a lot of discussion among the founding tribal college leaders, who brought another perspective that questioned established practices: Since TCUs are chartered by sovereign tribal governments, don’t we have the inherent right to establish methods or entities of our own for evaluating the viability of our postsecondary education institutions? To what extent can the standards embrace a tribal point of view? Can the process be conducted internally or must we rely on external entities? And, what are OUR priority outcomes for education – rebuilding Indian Nations or acculturating native students to mainstream non-native society?

      These questions prompted founders of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) to address accreditation of tribal colleges as an organizational goal. People such as Stanley Red Bird (Sinte Gleska College), Gerald One Feather (Oglala Lakota Community College) and others believed there should be a tribal accreditation model. The AIHEC goal remains in place today.

      Depending on who you talk to, there are varying perspectives about the evolution of accreditation in tribal higher education. Most tribal colleges, including United Tribes, have successfully settled into the mainstream accreditation process. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As I have said before, TCUs are validated in that process with what I call the “wasicu good housekeeping seal of approval,” and are regarded on the same level as accredited non-tribal institutions.

      In contrast, Sinte Gleska University President Lionel Bordeaux hopes to renew the discussion about developing an independent, tribal accreditation model. He says he understands the strengths of the existing accreditation mechanisms, but he questions whether TCUs still need to be validated by people and standards from outside tribal culture. “This is not the tribal control and self-determination envisioned by our founding leaders and elders,” he says.

      Progress on the accreditation can be seen in other developments. The leadership of the Association of Community Tribal Schools (ACTS) has adapted existing mainstream accreditation processes to include attention on areas important to tribal schools such as native language and culture.

      In the early 1990s, the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) was successful in gaining congressional recognition of tribal education departments. The establishment of TEDs was a first step toward tribally-controlled accreditation. However, federal funding of TEDs has continued to be a challenge for Indian educators and tribal government leaders.

      Several years ago, leaders from indigenous higher education institutions in the U.S., Canada, Hawaii and New Zealand came together to establish the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC). One initial goal was to develop an accreditation mechanism for tribal cultural education programming at both TCUs and mainstream institutions with native studies programs. Several tribal and state higher education institutions have already committed to this “native view” of accreditation evaluation.

      Will there be tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation?

      I don’t see the question as choosing a single accreditation process. Tribal colleges operate in a complex social, political, economic and cultural environment and we are familiar with “walking in many worlds.” Perhaps we need to be able to select from multiple or targeted accreditation methodologies for different areas of a postsecondary institution. If we work toward that, certainly we will be faced with numerous issues to address and problems to solve, including professional and public recognition and acceptance of the different methods.

      It is certain that there will be continued discussion about accreditation among current and future tribal college leaders. This will occur within a larger national discussion about the value, accountability and transparency of higher education institutions in general.

      The fact that today’s TCUs can at least make a choice under tribal control about accreditation options might say something about how far the TCUs have come. In that sense, the evolution of accreditation is an indicator of the vibrancy of tribal colleges and universities, and the advancement of tribal self-determination.