Research at Tribal Colleges: Survive or Thrive?

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by Helen Hu

Angeline Sells, left, and Benita Litson were among those who attended the First Americans Land-grant Consortium meeting in Denver in late October.

Angeline Sells, left, and Benita Litson were among those who attended the First Americans Land-grant Consortium meeting in Denver in late October.

With local lumber mills shutting down, Robert Kenning, an instructor at a tribal college in western Montana, and the tribe’s forestry director came up with an idea.

The usual products generated by forests on the Flathead Indian Reservation were not selling well, the victims of market forces. But what about looking at logging scraps and the smaller trees? Could this “woody biomass” be turned into chips or pellets for sale as an alternative energy source? Would the forests yield enough to make the effort worthwhile?

Kenning, an instructor of forestry and geographic information systems at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., landed a $200,000 grant in 2010 from the Department of Agriculture to explore this possibility.

Kenning’s research project and others conducted by tribal colleges drew lively interest when presented at the annual First Americans Land-grant Consortium, or FALCON, conference held in Denver in late October.

Some participants, however, wondered whether such research would thrive in coming years—or even survive, for that matter. The tribal colleges receive research grants from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy and other agencies. But their main source, by far, is the USDA, and those dollars could dry up.

The House of Representatives has approved cutbacks that would, among other things, eliminate USDA research grants to tribal colleges. A Senate appropriations bill retains the research funding. Those and other issues were expected to be taken up in a conference committee some time before a stopgap federal budget expired in mid-November.

In these tough budgetary times, the tribal colleges need to do a better job of publicizing their role and achievements, and next year’s FALCON conference will focus on how to do that, officials say. Training will be offered on putting out press releases and media kits and generating letters to editors, according to Dr. John Phillips, FALCON’s executive director.

Some colleges may have communications contacts, but, as a whole, there is no comprehensive or coordinated public relations effort, Phillips said.

The colleges must communicate what they do in a way that’s easy to understand, said Tim Grosser, national leader for the tribal college program of the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

“It’s extremely difficult to distill everything you’re doing and say what it means,” he acknowledged, but it is crucial to do it well. Elmer Guy, president of Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, N.M., urged faculty members to tell administrators what they were working on and encouraged the colleges to share information.

“It’s up to us to communicate our own stories,” he said. “We need to take extra time to work with our congressionals,” he said. “Our [college] presidents can’t do it all for us.”

The colleges say the research funding, in particular, is vital to the colleges.

Each year, the USDA gives up to $200,000 individually to seven to 12 projects. The total: $1.8 million a year. There’s no waste here, the colleges say.

“Most of our research is meeting a specific need or problem in the community—for instance, diabetes and social problems—that is not being addressed,” Phillips said. He said evidence of the usefulness of the research helped persuade senators to try to keep the funds. Some of the schools see their niche as preparing students for the next phase of their lives, not so much on research, Phillips said. But schools should have the chance to reach for that level if they want to, he added.

Kenning, the Montana instructor, has hired two students for his project and expects to hire more over the next two years, the length of the grants. If the USDA money went away, projects in general would employ fewer students, he said.

Benita Litson of Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz., is exploring what drought-resistant crops are practical for feeding livestock and hopes she can keep going after her USDA grant runs out in two years. Losing the money “would hurt our potential to grow—and the opportunity for faculty to learn research,” she said.

Terry Tatsey, director of land-grant programs at Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Mont., said losing the money would be hard to accept, especially because some schools had worked to build up their research capabilities.

“TCs are not able to compete as well [for other grants] against those with long histories of research,” he said. The tribal colleges essentially began doing research when the USDA began issuing the grants in 1999.

But Tatsey is confident that the colleges’ side of the issue will be expressed.

“As long as we maintain a seat at the table and our voice is heard that we want to continue to do research, we’ll have a chance,” said Tatsey, an alternative member of the Board of Agricultural Assembly for the tribal colleges of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities.

Dr. Ann Bartuska, deputy undersecretary of agriculture, called recent proposed cutbacks in research “disinvestment in ag science.”

Bartuska told the conference attendants that, given the looming budget constraints, the federal government needed to “collectively figure out what are our needs” and think and invest more strategically. “I’m struck by how many different pots of money don’t talk to each other,” she said.

“I’m very committed to the 1994s,” she said, referring to the tribal colleges. “They are well-positioned to connect with the trend toward sustainability.” They are in a “sweet spot” with some of the hot issues having to do with food and agriculture, she said.

There are 32 tribal colleges and universities around the nation. They are two-year and four-year institutions. Some offer master’s degrees. Many of them are in remote areas, with staff members serving several functions.

Tribal colleges have explored climate change, uranium and toxic waste contamination in soil and water, shifts in flora and fauna, tribal health issues and other subjects. By law, they must partner on projects with 1862 land-grant schools such as Texas A&M and Pennsylvania State universities. That requirement may be altered in the 2012 farm bill.

At the conference, FALCON released results of a survey that showed faculty and administrators at the tribal colleges think that it is important for their schools to do research.

But respondents also said that, for researchers to do their jobs properly, the colleges should provide better access to scientific journals, research papers, data analysis software, as well as laboratories. Faculty members must have time dedicated to research, and colleges need more people with the right academic credentials, the participants said.

Respondents wanted to see more research into topics including the environment, culture, language, health and wellness, nutrition and green technology. In presentations at the conference, students described projects on topics such as hydrology, uranium contamination of well water, sand dune expansion, community gardens and youth camps on environmental issues.

Faculty members spoke about alternative energy, native foods, preventing youth suicide, obesity, soil quality in prairie dog habitats and food-buying habits in tribal communities. Guy thinks that colleges should unite and overcome any lingering tribal or institutional rivalries.

“We’ve got to help one another,” he said. “If we don’t, we’re not as strong. We’re doing it for the students. … It’s all about Nation-building. We’re just the mechanism.”

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