ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Carrie Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, recently sat down for an interview to discuss her organization’s federal-level vision for tribal colleges. The Navajo lawyer-turned-higher education expert also shared some of the challenges and internal priorities of the United States and Canada’s 37 TCUs that make up AIHEC.
Indian Country Today: Do you think President-elect Obama’s new administration has positive plans in store for tribal colleges and universities?
Carrie Billy: We’re excited about the new administration and opportunities that we’ll have to continue moving the tribal colleges forward. Last year, Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act, which included the Tribal College Act and also the farm bill, which included [funding for] our land grant programs. … One of the main goals is to increase funding under those programs.
ICT: What’s your top priority under the new administration?
CB: Number one with the administration and Congress is to achieve forward funding for all the tribal colleges. They are the only institutions funded by the Bureau of Indian Education that are not forward funded.
ICT: Explain forward funding.
CB: BIE K-12 schools actually receive a portion of their funding for the academic year in advance. … They get [some] funding for the next academic year in the previous year. So, they’re ready to start on the first day of school.
ICT: How do the tribal colleges cope without forward funding?
CB: The situation now is that the colleges’ funding is appropriated annually by Congress and then funded through the Department of Interior for their basic operation. We’ve had a series of continuing resolution over the years, including this year – that all means until Congress gets an appropriation or a continuing resolution passed, the tribal colleges don’t receive their funding. So, there is a delay. They should receive their funding on Oct. 1, the beginning of the fiscal year. But they don’t. In many cases, they don’t get it for five or six months into the fiscal year, which, of course, is off from our academic year. … That means, to open doors at the beginning of the academic year, the tribal colleges generally have to take out short-term loans, which are at a high interest rate. Or they have to lay off staff, or they can’t offer courses that they wanted to. It’s a real impediment to focusing on and delivering high quality academic instruction.
In the long run, forward funding doesn’t even increase cost to the federal government because it’s funding that would have been provided anyway.
ICT: Have you received any signs that the Obama administration is open to working with you on forward funding?
CB: We’ve met with members of the transition team, and they know it’s our top priority.
ICT: In terms of Congress’ role, how confident are you that it will be supportive?
CB: Well, we’ve met with Sen. Byron Dorgan [D, N.D., chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee] and other members of Congress to discuss the issue. We think that they’re supportive of it also. We think our chances are pretty good.
ICT: Beyond forward funding, what are some of your other priorities?
CB: Another priority for the new administration is the Executive Order on Tribal Colleges and Universities. We want it revised to be more proactive and to hold the federal agencies more accountable. … We also hope to use the executive order and possibly new legislation – working with Congress and the administration – to establish some new renewable energy initiatives, particularly [focused on] workforce development at tribal colleges. We have some great models of renewable energy practices and programs at some of the tribal colleges. … We need to expand those kinds of programs. …
When the language is strong in the executive order, the federal agencies are very attentive in trying to meet those mandates. Without a strong executive order holding these agencies accountable, there’s really no great incentive for [them] to work with tribal colleges.
ICT: How does WHITCU [the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities] play into all of this?
CB: Well, it could be the central focal point for tribal colleges and for getting the message out about tribal colleges within the administration, the private sector, and also working with the tribal colleges to share and exchange information about federal agencies and their programs.
I was the first executive director of WHITCU under the Clinton administration. I used to say to the federal agencies, and to the people at the White House, that part of my job was to be a thorn in their side: Be someone who didn’t just always talk about how great everything is. … You have to have the courage to say that within the administration, and the facts to back it up. … The person in that position really has to be aggressive.
ICT: What do you hope the Obama administration will do in terms of WHITCU?
CB: We hope that number one – that they work closely with AIHEC and all the tribal colleges. In the past, that hasn’t happened a lot of times. … We think we have a lot to offer and information to share.
ICT: Internally, is getting more research on your students a big focus?
CB: I think continuing to be accountable to federal funders, private funders, and to tribal college communities will always be a big focus for us. Now, we’re going to the next step. We want to build the internal research capacity of our institutions. … It’s like a natural evolution.
ICT: How’s the outlook in 2009 for establishing new tribal colleges?
CB: We definitely want to help grow new tribal colleges and help the existing tribal colleges continue to flourish. We have made great progress in the spread of tribal colleges. … And we expect that growth to continue.