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Perspectives about Tribal Postsecondary Accreditation
By Dr. Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota)

27 October 2010

Dr. Phil Baird’s introduction to this subject appeared in the March 2010 edition of United Tribes News, under the title: “To Be or Not to Be: The Evolution of Tribally-controlled Postsecondary Education.” This follow-up discussion contains the views of leaders of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.  Baird is a past president of the National Indian Education Association, former Vice President of Sinte Gleska University, and is currently Vice President of Academic, Career and Technical Education at United Tribes Technical College. UTTC is presently engaged in self-study activities in pursuit of continued accreditation by the NCA Higher Learning Commission, which was the catalyst for this paper.

      At the 2010 AIHEC board of directors’ spring meeting, some TCU leaders shared their perspectives about AIHEC’s goal for establishing a tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation model.

      In general, these TCU leaders – astute, seasoned and distinguished Native American educators - understood and supported the doctrine of tribally-controlled education. Their responses to the following questions were informed, pragmatic yet realistic, and hopeful but cautious.

Dr. Phil Baird

Q. “Can there be a Tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation model?”

It is clearly recognized that postsecondary accreditation is a non-tribal process.  According to several leaders, the first question for tribal colleges and universities is whether or not TCUs want to pursue this pathway to validate their place in higher education.
Past and present TCU leaders believe, in principal, there can and should be a tribally-controlled postsecondary model. This was one of AIHEC’s original goals. As an exercise in tribal sovereignty and self-determination, this idea is consistent with tribal aspirations and philosophies about why TCUs were established in the first place.

Another reason for a TCU model is the fact that TCUs are different from their mainstream institutions of higher education – by virtue of indigenous cultures, histories, geographies, politics, organizational structures, and financial resources. TCUs are also distinctive in providing access to educational opportunities at multiple levels for student-learners representing as many as 200-250 tribes in the U.S.

Several TCU presidents suggested that perhaps only Native American educators and those connected with TCUs can truly understand, appreciate, and validate the delivery and quality of the education programs by tribal colleges and universities.  Certainly a TCU model would cultivate a stronger voice by TCU leadership in accreditation arenas. One president felt that a tribal model might strengthen the mindset of the evaluation process as a more authentic journey in the search for evidence of student success as opposed to being perceived as an institutional burden imposed by outside forces.

A problem that might be resolved with a TCU model is the lack of understanding and sensitivity by consultant-evaluators about why TCUs exist. TCU leaders become exhausted and frustrated at having to repeatedly explain tribal histories, political origins, cultural contexts, and the place of TCUs in the world of education. In some extreme cases, TCUs have had to deal with this problem as a form of intercollegiate paternalism, prejudice, or even institutional racism, by mainstream peer evaluators. TCU presidents said past accreditation experiences have been fraught with personal judgments of consultant-evaluators.

In more recent years, there have, in fact, been more consultant-evaluators coming from TCU backgrounds. Several said that they felt compelled to articulate and clarify the TCU roles and operations for their accreditation team members who had no prior experiences with tribal colleges. This interaction was key for effective evaluations.

Another pragmatic advantage of a TCU accreditation model is that its purpose could focus on the mission of most TCUs, that being the rebuilding and strengthening of Indian Nations. Mainstream accreditation entities are increasingly becoming centered on a postsecondary institution’s viability in producing graduates who are globally competitive. This focus has the potential to distract from, and even create tension with, those TCU objectives and outcomes directed at developing “resident expertise” that focuses on helping their relatives, communities and tribes toward goals of being educated, self-sufficient, and “protecting the future of Indian Country.”

TCU presidents pointed out that establishing a consensus about the purpose(s) of a TCU accreditation model will be critical to its development. Even before this task is accomplished, however, there is already an in-depth understanding about the challenges and difficulties in creating a different model.

Q. “What are the potential challenges in establishing a Tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation model?”

According to TCU leaders, the development of a TCU accreditation model will need to be based on an innovative, comprehensive system with clear purposes, standards, procedures, and protocols that recognize tribal values and cultural diversity.

This system will need to be supported with buy-in from its membership, stable financial resources, and a tremendous amount of time and energy committed upfront on the development of the infrastructure. In the long-term, one might expect that financial support of such as system will be costly, requiring a broader constituent membership base than presently exists.
Once developed, the system will need to build trust and accountability, and maintain standards of integrity, to gain acceptance from tribal and mainstream institutions of higher education. Can TCUs create and sustain such a system?

One of the initial challenges will be to articulate a purpose. Today’s mainstream accreditation processes are intended to evaluate student learning outcomes that are shaped by professional and industry-skills standards. They serve to review “best practices” validated by research, test multiple assessments of progress based on evidence, and measure the global competitiveness of postsecondary graduates. And they are meant to be responsive to public demand for institutional accountability and transparency. Central to this discussion is whether, and to what extent, a tribal postsecondary accreditation model should embrace similar purposes?

One person characterized this as TCUs trying to “tribalize” the mainstream accreditation model by using the same standards (e.g., assurances of quality, accountability and sustainability) that are evaluated through a peer review process. If this is the case, it was suggested that TCUs might be better off to focus on educating the leaders and consultant-evaluators of current accrediting agencies and develop more authentic processes for validating TCUs within the existing structures.

A major challenge for establishing a TCU model will be, not only identifying standards of quality and accountability, but gaining consensus about how assessment measures are defined. Because of federal and state funding, tribal colleges are already struggling with institutionalizing and evaluating key performance indicators (e.g., academic progress, retention, completion, placement, etc.) which might not accurately represent students and their learning situations at tribal colleges. Some TCU presidents believe flexibility will be needed, given the diversity of tribal cultures and institutional characteristics as well as the socio-economic characteristics of the students served.

Will it be overwhelming to create another set of standards and key performance indicators?  Most TCUs are already accredited by either the North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission or the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. For certification of professional programs, some also subscribe to other entities such as trade unions, state teaching boards, and national nursing commissions. Will another accreditation agency be perceived by TCU leadership as more programmatic and financial burden?

One TCU president pointed out two areas for concern: the generous nature of people within indigenous cultures and the shared experience of those in the pool of professionals in tribal postsecondary education. Peer-evaluators might be more sensitive to the evolution and administration of TCUs. But could familiarity compromise objectivity and consistency of the standards? TCU leaders believe these concerns could be tested depending upon the rigors of the accrediting processes.

After the establishment of a TCU accreditation model, a major challenge that can be anticipated will be the level of acceptance by external entities such as the U.S. Department of Education and other institutions of higher education, including tribal “sister” institutions. Someone facetiously commented that maybe regional accrediting agencies would support a tribal model so they wouldn’t have to deal with tribal colleges.

However, important issues such articulation agreements, transfer of credit, and eligibility for federal funding are related to postsecondary accreditation status. The development of a tribal system will need to take into consideration these and other critical issues that impact the future of tribal colleges and universities.

Q. “Can the American Indian Higher Education Consortium serve as the accrediting agency?” 

Most TCU presidents felt it was a worthy aspiration of early AIHEC leaders to establish a goal for a tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation model. They understand that idea was inspired in an era when tribally-controlled education was emerging. But they also recognize that the consortium has evolved into an effective political advocacy group. To introduce accreditation to the mission would present a conflicting purpose and the potential for conflicts of interest.

TCU leaders also perceived that Consortium members may be reluctant to embrace tribal peer review since all TCUs are in competition for the same public and private sector resources for institutional support. Unless a model with strong objectivity and consistency is demonstrated, peer reviews might be seen as disadvantageous in accessing those resources.

But given what it represents, the Consortium is seen as the most obvious vehicle for discussions about developing a framework for a tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation model.

Q. “What might be the next steps in exploring the establishment of a Tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation model?”

If developed similar to mainstream mechanisms, the elements of a tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation system will encompass measures of student success, curricular content, governance, resource distribution, community relationships, decision-making, fiscal accountability, technology as an educational tool, and research capacity.

According to TCU leaders, a tribal model might also assess contributions and impact toward the evolution of 21st Century Native communities served by TCUs. This could encompass indigenous culture revitalization, perpetuation of native languages, advancement of economic opportunities, conservation of Indian land resources, modification of tribal governance structures, protection of tribal sovereignty, succession of leadership, and ultimately, impact on quality of life.

There is a tremendous opportunity that emerges with the discussion about a tribal model. If the assessment process is to focus on the TCU student, then tribal leaders and educators will need to contextualize and describe how “a 21st Century learner is educated by a tribally-controlled education system.” This could involve defining the qualities, attributes, and skills of a “highly- functional tribal member.”  Here is where the Native cultural context vs. mainstream context might be addressed in defining student success.

Given the scope of this developmental work, what might be the next steps toward the establishment of a TCU accreditation model?

The Future

At the 2010 NCA HLC conference in Chicago, UTTC President David M. Gipp echoed the perspectives of his peers by suggesting four venues to pursue:

  1. Interested TCUs can develop and establish an independent tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation system, eventually leading to recognition by the federal government through U.S. Congressional legislation. The effort will require an enormous amount of time and resources. (Since this discussion paper does not address accreditation theory and practice in mainstream higher education, a study would be valuable. The inquiry might also look at models that exist in other countries.)
  2. The WINHEC initiative could provide the pathway toward the evolution of an independent tribally-controlled postsecondary accreditation system. Several TCUs have already expressed an interest in the processes being piloted through this consortium.
  3. With the establishment of Tribal Education Departments, some TCUs might think about using TEDs as accrediting mechanisms. Along with time and resource issues, local accountability and tribal politics would have to be addressed and balanced between TCUs and tribal governments.
  4. TCUs can continue to subscribe to current regional accrediting agencies and professional accreditation commissions. This would not create an independent tribally-controlled model, but TCUs could pursue changes in the existing accreditation processes that might better take into account the needs of tribal colleges and universities.

It is certain that there will be continued discussion about accreditation among current and future tribal college leaders. This will be supplemented by 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 postsecondary accreditation provides evidence of the vibrancy of tribal colleges and universities, and the advancement of tribal self-determination.

Mitakuye Oyasin (All My Relations)

Sincere appreciation is extended to Dr. Lionel Bordeaux, Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull, Dr. David M. Gipp, Dr. Cynthia Linquist-Mala, Dr. Robert Martin, Dr. Jim Shanley, and Dr. Deborah Wetsit-His Horse Is Thunder for sharing their valuable time and perspectives about this topic, and to United Tribes News Editor Dennis J. Neumann for his assistance editing this discussion paper. Pilamayelo!  Wanbli Wicasa

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