Inspired after President Donald Trump invited a large group of historically black college and university (HBCU) leaders to meet with him in the Oval Office in February, tribal college and university (TCU) leadership is trying to make sure their unique needs receive attention and make progress under the new administration.
“[W]e are very encouraged by President Trump’s support of HBCUs,” said Carrie Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education (AIHEC), adding that the organization, which encompasses 37 TCUs, has already sent the White House a draft of a tribal college executive order based on one that President George W. Bush signed twice.
Bush’s 2002 executive order continued the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities (WHITCU), first created under President Bill Clinton; WHITCU was established to provide administrative and financial support, as well as broader attention for tribal colleges. Both Clinton and Bush were generally supportive of funding for the schools.
“Tribal colleges and universities help preserve irreplaceable languages and cultural tradition,” Bush said when he signed his executive order in July 2002. “At the same time, of course, they offer a high-quality college education to thousands of students and provide much-needed job training and other means of economic development in Indian country.”
Native education leaders were widely discouraged that President Barack Obama did not continue the tradition of supporting tribal colleges via executive order that had been established under the Clinton and Bush II administrations, although Obama in 2009 personally donated a portion of the proceeds from his Nobel Peace Prize to the American Indian College Fund for TCU student scholarships. A portion of the Cobell settlement made during the Obama administration was also earmarked for Indian scholarships. AIHEC additionally secured $50 million in Obama's first budget in 2009 to transition Tribal College Act grants to forward funding, which helped tribal colleges better budget for their future needs.
“President Obama did not sign a separate Tribal College Executive Order, and his White House Initiative on American Indian/Alaska Native Education rarely met with the TCUs,” Billy lamented.
In 2011, the Obama White House eliminated WHITCU altogether, and Obama chose to issue an all-encompassing executive order on generally improving Indian education that included TCUs. In retrospect, it didn’t achieve the desired goal, as former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in an interview with ICMN in January that the lack of progress on Indian education was one of the biggest regrets of her tenure.
“We were very disappointed in the outcome of the Obama [broad Indian education executive orders], and we hope that President Trump will take the time to learn about the exciting ways that tribal colleges are working to strengthen Indian country and ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives are key contributors to the U.S. workforce, job creation on reservations and in rural America, and 21st century innovation,” Billy said in an obvious pitch to appeal to Trump’s economic interests.
“TCUs have a lot to offer; and interestingly, we have a lot in common with this administration: TCUs are job creators – they are place-based builders of the American Indian workforce, and they are probably the best examples of affordable and accessible higher education in the country,” continued Billy. “We are also working hard to preserve our disappearing Native languages and our cultures and to ensure that our ways of knowing and being are the foundation of our education systems, because that is the best way to restore identity and pride in our Native youth – to make them strong so that we will have a strong future.”
Noting new Education Department Secretary Betsy DeVos’ support for school choice, Billy added, “We are hopeful that this will resonate with the new leadership of the Department of Education as a clear and positive example of choice in education.”
It remains unclear whether the Trump White House and Education Department are tuned in to TCUs and the obvious places to partner with them. The White House has said nothing to date about supporting tribal colleges, and the Trump Education Department has been mum on potential plans related to the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, despite multiple request from ICMN on that front.
Quinton Roman Nose, executive director of the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly, thinks the silence, in addition to Trump’s plans to slash domestic spending, speaks volumes already.
“I have not heard anything to make me believe the current administration is even interested in the Indian community other than to reduce/eliminate funding for Indian programs,” Roman Nose said.
Still, Billy said that tribal college leaders remain optimistic, especially after the challenges they faced under the Obama administration.
“[T]he tribal college presidents will be here in D.C. in June, and we hope to meet with President Trump and his Cabinet at that time, particularly Secretaries DeVos and [the Interior Department’s Ryan] Zinke,” Billy said. “We will see what happens over the next few months.”