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Native education is the commitment of a new president

DURANGO, Colo. – Fort Lewis College has named the first woman president in its 99-year history and she has had specific experience in Native education, college officials said in announcing the replacement for Brad Bartel, who steps down June 30.

Dr. Dene Kay Thomas, currently president of Lewis-Clark State College, in Lewiston, Idaho, will become president of Fort Lewis July 1. She has worked closely with the Nez Perce Tribe at Lewis-Clark, the only known institution that teaches the Nez Perce language.

“Dr. Thomas has an underlying belief in the value of the liberal arts tradition, and has shown her commitment to Native American education in her work with the Nez Perce tribe,” said Richard C. Ballantine, chair of the college’s Board of Trustees. “She is an ideal fit for Fort Lewis, Durango and the many broader communities that the college serves.”

Native students comprise about 20 percent of Fort Lewis’ approximately 3,700 students and, of those, more than 80 percent are from outside Colorado. Under provisions of a federal-state agreement, the college waives tuition for all American Indian students, requiring state reimbursement and evoking concern from a budget-conscious Colorado that is calling for possible two-year $4.5 million spending cuts at the college.

“Dr. Thomas has a breadth of skills that has made her an effective president. Fort Lewis College will benefit from her knowledge of the academy and how to lead it, and from her external experiences that will give the college the credibility and the visibility that it deserves.” -Richard C. Ballantine, chair, Board of Trustees, Fort Lewis College.

At the Idaho college, Thomas “reversed declining enrollment trends, restructured the college to better meet its mission and increased the viability of the college through an energetic public relations and marketing initiative,” according to Fort Lewis, which has itself suffered a drop in enrollment and budget concerns in recent years.

Fort Lewis will benefit from Thomas’ “external experiences that will give the college the credibility and the visibility that it deserves,” Ballantine said.

Thomas received her undergraduate degree from Southwest Minnesota State University and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota. She was an associate professor at the University of Idaho before becoming vice provost of academic affairs there. She became president of Lewis-Clark State College in 2001.

The announcement of Thomas’ appointment came during the college’s celebration of Hozhoni Days, which concludes with a powwow and the naming of Miss Hozhoni, an event that draws thousands of visitors and participants, said a spokesman for Wanbli Ota, the college’s Native student organization.