Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The University of Alaska Anchorage is picking a new chancellor during a time of nearly overwhelming challenges. Pearl Kiyawn Nageak Brower, former president of the tribal college Ilisagvik in Utqiagvik is one of eight finalists for the post.

Over the past year, the president of the University of Alaska resigned, as did the chancellor of the Anchorage campus. The University has said it will announce its choice to fill the chancellor position in early May.

Bryan Brayboy, Lumbee, is vice president of social advancement at Arizona State University in Phoenix, and a President’s Professor, a designation given to faculty for outstanding contributions to students.

He said Brower is “amazing,” and flexible in her thinking. “She did really interesting, innovative things at Ilisagvik,” he said.

When he met her, “she was doing some work and thinking about what kinds of leadership lessons might transfer across contexts for Indigenous peoples. She's wickedly smart, cares about people and about place. I don't know [them]...and I'm not weighing in here on [the] other candidates. I can just tell you that I have the highest regard for Pearl.”

In the past three years, the University of Alaska Anchorage has been through devastating budget cuts, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, a downturn in enrollment, a loss of leadership, and a pandemic.

And the budget woes haven’t ended. The university still has another $25 million to take out of the upcoming year’s budget due to budget cuts and vetos in 2019 by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state Legislature.

Despite the dark times for the Alaska university, Brower told a selection committee she sees opportunities — for building bridges and partnerships, and to build enrollment and research at the Anchorage campus of the University of Alaska system, which also has campuses in Fairbanks and Juneau, and satellite campuses across the state.

Bryan Brayboy, Lumbee, President's Professor (designation for outstanding service to students), and vice president for social advancement, Arizona State University. (Photo courtesy of Arizona State University).

Brower said, “as chancellor, I would make sure shared governance is definitely a priority and one that is very prevalent in our work together. I think of governing as more of a partnership because we are all here for the same goal. We are all here for our students.” Transparency and communications also bring innovative ideas from students and programs, Brower said.

If chosen to be the University of Alaska Anchorage’s chancellor, Brower would be joining a select group of Native Americans in top positions at universities.

The 2017 American College President Study from the American Council on Education showed the portion of American Indian and Alaska Native presidents was .7 percent in 2016, down from .8 percent in 2011.

However, Brayboy said, “I think that there's a number of folks who are in very good positions, who have the capacity to continue to move up and through [higher echelons of universities] in really interesting ways. I think that, for me, a pretty important piece of this is a number of folks who've kind of broken through more recently to help people imagine what's possible.”

One of the people who has “broken through” is Karen Diver, Chippewa, incoming senior advisor to the president for Native American Affairs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and former special assistant to President Obama for Native American Affairs. She is also a former chairwoman for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and served as a special assistant to former President Barack Obama for Native American Affairs at the White House. 

She said Native Americans have not been well represented in leadership in academia for several reasons.

“Part of the difficulty that has been expressed by Native academics is many of them do research on topics that are related to their own communities or Native America in general. You know, it's hard to get published in mainstream journals about those things. They do a lot of effort around diversity and equity. And that's uncompensated, and it's not taken into account for tenure and promotion” in academia, Diver said.

But, “they're there and they should be nurtured and grown and these institutions really kind of need to redefine what constitutes an academic leader. And when they start to do that definition of unpaid work and the value of research that is outside of solely Western thinking, they'll find a really robust set of candidates,” Diver said.

Brayboy says Diver is a good example of someone with highly developed transferable skills. “You have someone who has been a tribal leader. You have someone who has then been an executive level leader in the U.S. government. And then you have someone who, that same person then has made the transition and the move to institutions of higher ed. There's a level of flexibility in what Karen has done that I think people pay attention to and they go, ‘Oh my gosh, we can do that…’”

Karen Diver, former chairwoman for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, delivers a speech during the annual Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial dinner, at which she was honored.

Brayboy said young people who see themselves in Native Americans in high office in any field begin to think they can hope and prepare for more advanced careers. 

Brayboy and Diver gave as examples federal judge Diane Humetewa, Hopi; U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, of Kansas; Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo; Foundation Professor of Law and Leadership for the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and the first Native American woman to be appointed dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law Stacy Leeds, Cherokee; Professor and Director of the School of Education at Colorado State University Susan C. Faircloth, Coharie Tribe of North Carolina; University of Iowa College of Law Dean Kevin Washburn, Chickasaw Nation; Gary Sandefur, who recently retired as provost at Oklahoma State University; Alaska Pacific University President Val Davidson, Yup’ik; Senior Vice President Megan Bang, Ojibwe, at the Spencer Foundation; and Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvlie, Navajo. She’s president emerita of Antioch University Seattle, where she served as president from 2007-2013, and reportedly the first Native woman to serve as president of an accredited university outside of the tribal college and university system. 

Natives in leadership roles will be helping overcome an older, different perception of opportunities. The American Council on Education’s 2020 supplemental report on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education notes diversity has increased in some areas. It stated that in 2017, a fifth of students were people of color, and a fourth of new faculty were people of color.

However, “students of color were much more likely to encounter people from similar backgrounds in clerical, technical, and service staff positions than among faculty, department head, administrative, or mid-level professional positions.

"In 2018–19, 41.3 percent of all service and maintenance staff, 26.4 percent of all technical and paraprofessional staff, 25.8 percent of all office and clerical staff, and 17.1 percent of all skilled craft staff identified as people of color,” stated the race and ethnicity report.

ICT logo bridge

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter