"By us purchasing a non-Indian-owned university, right in the heart of a non-Indian community, has got to say something," Cheyenne River Chairman Gregg Bourland said.
EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. - The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's Si Tanka College is breaking new ground with the purchase of Huron University in northeastern South Dakota.
The acquisition, formally announced May 3, was done under a non-profit corporation using a $6.6 million rural development loan under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I think it is the first time in the history of the United States that a non-sectarian private college has gone together with a Native American Institution, Huron University spokesman Dick Shelton said.
Shelton said the purchase was difficult to arrange because the federal agency and those tied to the financing of the venture had never arranged such a deal.
The tribe originally agreed to assist the college with the purchase, but after opposition from some tribal members, Si Tanka decided to look for a different method to fund the merger.
Chancellor David O'Donnell said, "It is very much in line with the reconciliation."
Si Tanka President T.L. Traversie said he saw the move as an unprecedented opportunity for both institutions. He said he believes the financial benefits for students will be extraordinary and the future joint efforts in the area such as distance learning will greatly benefit the constituencies of both institutions.
The two institutions will operate under one board, Shelton said.
"There will be no visible changes to the college, but there will be a lot of subtle changes. Because Si Tanka is only in candidacy status as a two-year school now, we'll be working to put a lot of the systems we have in place to bring it up to a four-year school and they will get accreditation too," Shelton said.
He called the purchase a win-win situation and a natural fit because, he said, the university has had a long history of serving educational needs for tribal students.
Si Tanka College, which has an enrollment of about 320 full-time students, has been trying to gain accreditation which has eluded the small tribal college since the late 1970s.
Traversie said the two institutions will have a 12-member board, adding five members from the Huron area to its present board of directors, which will oversee the operation of Huron University and what is now Si Tanka Tribal College.
Tribal Chairman Gregg Bourland said the tribal college asked for help from the tribe in obtaining a guaranteed loan, but after discussion, college officials went back with the news it had found another source for a loan. There was a tribal resolution to assist in funding the venture, which was withdrawn after college officials informed the council it had found its own lending source.
Bourland said the opposition recently brought in a petition to hold a referendum concerning the purchase, but a referendum can take place only for a proposed or enacted ordinance or resolution of the tribal council.
"In this case the resolution has already been rescinded," he said.
"There is tremendous political support. It isn't going to have any impact on Presentation College," Bourland said. Presentation College of Aberdeen, has a nursing program on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
"I think the impact is going to be good."
"This is a way of reconciliation, of bringing people together," Chancellor O'Donnell said.
Founded in 1883, the nearly 120-year-old Huron University has gone through some turbulent times including changes in ownership that proved costly. For a time a Japanese businessman owned the college and failed to reinvest in its facilities. When it was on the verge of losing its accreditation, local investors bought the school in 1999 and it rebounded. It is accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
Shelton noted that tuition at Huron University, which has an enrollment of more than 532 full-time students, will remain the same. He said the college is one of a few in the region with guaranteed rate based on tuition students pay in their first year. However, if a student drops out, they would return under any tuition changes approved prior to their re-enrollment.
Bourland said the move was important to help tribal students stay in school to finish college education. The side benefits are in the programs offered at the university and the potential for growth.
"Huron is an upcoming community and there is tremendous potential for that real estate we purchased. It is worth well more than the $6.6 million. By us purchasing a non-Indian-owned university, right in the heart of a non-Indian community, has got to say something."
The benefit for Si Tanka College is gaining the accreditation it has sought for more than 27 years. If the college had remained without such options, it would be 2008 before it would eligible for accreditation, Traversie said.