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From Choctaw Nation to Penn State: Grayson Noley And His Educational Journey

NORMAN, Oklahoma—To get a better read on Grayson Noley, try looking at his Curriculum Vitae (CV). It’s 19 pages long and meanders like a stream from humble beginnings in the Choctaw Nation to Penn State.

Noley currently serves as an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies on the faculty of Educational Administration/Curriculum and Supervision at the University of Oklahoma (OU). He came to OU in 1996 to be academic chair of Educational Leadership and Policy and stepped down voluntarily about a year-and-a-half ago after serving 13 years in the position.

He curries the idea that Indians are vastly underrepresented in higher education administration circles, excluding tribal colleges.

“I know of no Indian (at a mainstream college) who is the Dean of his college,” he said. “I don’t know of any Indians who are vice presidents or presidents in college.”

At OU, one Indian serves as the department chair for the Indian students. More women have been placed in leadership positions at OU which is a change since the early days of Noley’s career, he said. Next came some minorities, but Indians are low on the minority totem, he said.

“There are people who are prepared, but a college’s president or provost has to be committed to hiring minorities,” he said. “It’s more than a matter of gender or race, it’s a philosophy.”

As a young Choctaw man, he graduated from Wilburton High School in 1961 deep within the Choctaw Nation’s 11-county jurisdiction. Crowded into a big family of four brothers and one sister, he watched an uncle (his mom’s first cousin) coach locally and took his cue from there that education was the pathway for him.

“We grew up without anything,” he said. “It was the idea of getting a job, so we learned to prepare ourselves for the world of work.”

After getting his undergraduate degree at a local college (Southeastern Oklahoma State University), Noley ended up at Pennsylvania State University, where he received his master’s and a doctorate degree in education. Fate kind of stepped in there, he recalled.

“I was going to OU at the time, but I had some friends who encouraged me to go to Penn State for post-graduate work in a program the school had. So I did.”

Back to his CV, he has more than 26 items of published works and has received grants (grantsmanship) for millions of dollars, all in the name of trying to better Indian higher education.

“I set my course,” he said. “I prepared myself as a professor and was committed to being a professor.”

Indians who take on higher education (via mainstream) are still the minority, according to national statistics. The 2009 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey says that of the 2.4 million self-identified Indians in the country, 13 percent have claimed a bachelor degree or higher. In Noley’s home state of Oklahoma about 15 percent of the state’s estimated 1.4 million Indians have a college degree. No bureau statistics are compiled on the number of Indians in higher education administration, Census officials said.

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Still, Indians at mainstream colleges manage to find a niche. At Kansas University, Cherokee Nation member Stacy Leeds is serving as interim associate dean of academic affairs at KU’s Law School. A long-time member of her tribe’s high court, she moved to KU several years ago.

Leeds thinks developing fertile ground for Indians in academic leadership is basic, effective and a work in progress.

“The only way there will more American Indian university administrators is if there are more Indians at all ranks in the university system, starting with students. Like so many other areas, a solid pipeline is the key,” she said.

She favors college departments placing minority faculty as chairs of important committees, for starters.

“Unfortunately, many minority professors or staff that would be outstanding administrators have to look beyond their own institutions for leadership development and mentoring and this creates additional burdens.”

Meanwhile, figures from the Chronicle of Higher Education, decry a lack of diversity in academia. The American Council for Education (ACE) claims that Indians only make up 1 percent of chief academic officers across the country in 2009, compared to 85 percent who are white and 6 percent who are African American and 4 percent who are Latino.

Tribal colleges seem to even out the academic playing field because faculty, administration and students are mostly Native. This venue familiarizes budding Native students to the notion that being Indian and being educated is a common experience. Today, some 36 tribal colleges belong to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC).

Noley believes that when Indian students who do get their degree make it the employment level and are hired by tribal colleges, it drains the pool of qualified Indian educators who might make good candidates for mainstream college administration positions.

“That’s a contradiction we need to learn to deal with,” he said. “But we never have enough (Indians) in school leadership.”

For others, good mentors do a lot when added to a commitment to diversity. At University of New Mexico School of Law, Kevin K. Washburn (Chickasaw), said getting the job comes first, with race a pale second to performance.

“Once I got the job, I received no special favors because of my identity. I am required to meet all the standards required of a ‘dean’ and not even the other American Indians on the faculty are inclined to cut me breaks because of my Indian identity,” he said. “And each day, I am required to prove myself again and meet the high expectations of each of the many constituency groups: students, faculty, university leadership, alumni, legislators and the judiciary.”

And if more Indians are needed in higher education administration, Noley stepping down as department chair seems contradictory. But he feels secure. In 2007, he suffered a heart attack that made him rethink his goals.

“I had the kind of heart attack brought on by stress and genetics,” he said. “I can’t run away from who I am but I can reduce the stress, I thought. So I did.”