Salish Kootenai College Celebrates Graduation and Luana Ross’s First Year as President

The 2011 graduation ceremony was recently held at Salish Kootenai College (SKC), which was chartered in 1977 by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. This was the first ceremony for Dr. Luana Ross, who has been president since July 1, 2010. The latest class made their way across the stage to receive diplomas on June 11. The combination of bachelor’s, associate’s degrees and certificates of completion totaled nearly 170. More than 2,500 students have graduated over the years, more than 60 percent of whom are tribal members. E.T. “Bud” Moran, tribal council chairman and school board member, welcomed the class and drew laughs when he commented, “The first one (commencement) was around a campfire with steaks and beer.”

In a written comment, Moran said, “People from across the state and nation come to Pablo (Montana) to be part of the best tribal college in the country. What does SKC mean to this council? SKC shows the world that our nation is ambitious and capable, dedicated and persistent, and mostly, we are committed to retaining the lessons taught to us by our ancestors. Our council could not be prouder of the people who will receive their diplomas.”

Graduation ceremonies are now held in the Joe McDonald Health & Athletic Center, a two-year-old facility named after a founder of SKC, who also made the commencement address. McDonald was president for three years before handing the reins over to Ross last summer. He quipped that he’d “been attending for 30 years or more but this was the first time I’ve been the speaker.”

“You made a wise choice when you came to SKC,” he told the students. “The faculty here is second to none.”

Ross told the students that graduation was not an end, but a beginning, that they are now equipped to be better citizens and better leaders. She also urged them to remember the wonderful and exciting years they had at SKC and should feel a sense of accomplishment in completing their degrees.

In an interview prior to the ceremonies, Ross said, “Joe McDonald made being a college president look very easy. I said, ‘thanks a lot. It’s really hard.’” McDonald had grown up with the college and knew it intimately but for someone new the job was almost overwhelming.

Ross explained that new college presidents have the opportunity to attend a summer institute directed at running a college. “The best institute you can go to as a new college president is Harvard. I applied and I’ve been accepted and the American Indian College Fund is going to pay my way.” She’ll be going in July for two weeks and hopes “to learn a few new tricks there.”

Looking back over the year, Ross related some successes with her initial goals and some that are still being worked on. She found that implementing an eco-friendly campus turned out to be more difficult than expected. “The students had taken the lead on it prior to me arriving but they were just getting worn down trying to do anything.” She put together a Go-Green Initiative Committee with the environmental scientists on campus, students, and others. “But we still couldn’t get it going. I think the younger generation is more into this, but I think it’s the older generation in more powerful positions that are slow to change.” In the meantime she met with the University of Montana sustainability officer who had great ideas. “She said it took them many years, many tries,” to get it established on campus.

She has turned to a more formal approach and named a Presidential Commission on Sustainability, actually one of three such commissions she formed this year.

She started an honor professor series to recognize professors on campus who are doing fabulous work in addition to teaching. Every Friday a different department chairman was invited to talk of their research and the community was invited. “It was just great. It was a chance for us to connect as a campus community and then have community people come in. For example, Doug Stevens was doing research on the mercury level in local fish. That is something everyone should know about.”

Budget woes and parity on campus was another challenge. “I asked for a spreadsheet of years of experience and degrees and pay scale and it was all over the place. There was a person who had been here for a year with a GED making more than one of our faculty.” There is now a President’s Commission on Parity to work on problems of salary equity. “My idea is to use the concept of comparable worth. There are many different models and we’ll find one to find tune for SKC.”

“So far it’s been really good in terms of the budget and hanging onto folks. We’re in better shape than state funded universities. We’re federally funded. We were cut three percent which isn’t bad.”

SKC also has a school of nursing and a pinning ceremony was held for nursing students the day before graduation with 22 students receiving associate’s degrees in nursing and another seven awarded baccalaureate degrees.