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Self-study seen as chance to innovate
3 December 2007

BISMARCK (UTN) How many colleges do you know that operate a grade school? Or provide child care for students who are parents? Or student housing?

      Unlike colleges in the mainstream, these and other practices designed to support and retain tribal students are the norm at United Tribes Technical College.

Wanda Swagger and Barbara Little Owl
Discussing a subject during the self-study retreat are Wanda Swagger, Finance Specialist (at left) and Barbara Little Owl, Human Resource Director.

      How UTTC does things differently for the success of its students has emerged as the central focus of an institutional self-study to prepare the college for a new round of accreditation.

      Preparing the interesting and detailed descriptions about UTTC's approaches to higher education will take a couple years worth of assessing, reflecting, discussing and writing. And that is the work of a new campus steering committee.

      Twenty-six members of the UTTC Self-Study Committee began work on the process during a retreat November 5-6. The two day event followed an October organizational session that launched UTTC into a process that will lead to reaccreditation by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA). With the college's current 10 year accreditation period expiring in 2011, UTTC is ahead of the two-year planning curve recommended by NCA.

      If there is one thing United Tribes has been keen on since its earliest days, it is accreditation, the "holy grail" of educational effectiveness and credibility. UTTC President David M. Gipp successfully pursued the process beginning in 1977 when he became the college's leader. UTTC has maintained its accreditation status ever since, regularly expanding the scope of its approved educational offerings. A crowning achievement was earned in 2004 when UTTC became the first tribal college to receive accreditation for its online associate degree programs in Early Childhood Education and Injury Prevention.

      The current self-study effort is led by committee chairman Russell Swagger, the college's vice president of Student and Campus Services, who intends to make the process less formidable than some perceive it to be, and more creative.

      The current self-study effort is led by committee chairman Russell Swagger, the college's vice president of Student and Campus Services, who intends to make the process less formidable than some perceive it to be, and more creative.

      "This process is about engaging people and helping them become visionary in their thinking," said Swagger during the meeting.

      Borrowing a phrase from his mentor, UTTC Finance Director Shirley Bordeaux, Swagger said his goal for committee members is to have them look upon this as something they 'get to do,' not something they 'have to do.'

      Representatives of all major divisions of the college attended the retreat, including two faculty members who served on the last self-study committee in 2001. The well-prepared agenda included presentations to the whole group and smaller group activities.

      Leaders at United Tribes are encouraged by what they perceive as less rigidity in the NCA reaccreditation process. They believe that institutions now have more flexibility than what may have existed previously to evaluate their own circumstances and gain accreditation for well-designed educational programs that may differ from what is common elsewhere.

      To demonstrate, a UTTC staff member who is a talented artist introduced a series of tribal characters in a thought provoking PowerPoint presentation. Each image represented universal tribal characteristics that would help interpret elements of the self-study from a tribal point of view and potentially lead to a graphic or animated supplement to a printed report.

      Since the beginning of the tribal college movement in the early 1970s, tribal college leaders have had mixed feelings about accreditation. The main benefit is for students who seek to transfer their credits to study at other institutions. What is seen as less desirable is to undergo evaluation by mainstream education professionals who may have little or no experience with tribally-controlled education or tribal people. In the absence of something more culturally suitable, tribal colleges have subscribed to accreditation. Leaders at United Tribes see the current self-study as an opportunity to create an indigenized model of accreditation.

      "The challenge for this group is to use this process to articulate what it means to be in a tribal setting," said Dr. Phil Baird, Vice President of Academic, Career and Technical Education, during the retreat. "This is what's at the very essence of our mission. We are a tribally controlled institution. Everything we do is about protecting, preserving and promoting a tribal higher education model."

      There is a great deal of importance for the self-study committee to focus on things that make United Tribes different from other institutions of higher education, Baird said.

      "Mainstream colleges and universities can't touch what we and other tribal colleges do when it comes to tribal culture and language and developing our human resources and institutions," said Baird. "And how do we go about that? How do we do business? What's an appropriate model for our constituents?"

      The answers to those questions will evolve as the committee resumes meeting in the near future; a date has not been set for the next session. Chairman Swagger will be ready to describe his vision of the tribal college model for accreditation, a presentation that was dropped from the retreat meeting because of time limitations. Another activity will involve the listing of accomplishments and challenges over the time of the current accreditation period since 2001, according to Kathy Johnson, Enrollment Services Director, a member of the committee. The information will be assembled into a timeline, known as the "River of Time," Johnson said.


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