Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson is ‘ideal choice’ to lead Alaska Pacific University

Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson is ‘ideal choice’ to lead Alaska Pacific University. (Photo by Mark Trahant, Indian Country Today)

Joaqlin Estus

Davidson steps in to replace Dr. Bob Onders, a physician and an attorney

Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage has named Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, Yup’ik, as its incoming president. Board chairman Ethan Schutt, Athabacan, wrote in a prepared statement that Davidson’s background makes her the “ideal choice to lead our university.” He praised her experience, saying she is a “seasoned health care executive attorney, educator and Alaska Native leader.”

“I’m excited for this opportunity to lead APU into its next chapter," Davidson said in a prepared statement. "The University has a long tradition of providing an outstanding educational experience for students and a reputation for being a wonderful place to work, learn and grow. While this is a challenging time for the entire APU community as it is for many people around the world, together we’ll weather the storm, and it will be my honor to take the helm.”

Davidson is the former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, a former Lt. Governor, and former senior director of legal and intergovernmental affairs for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She was executive vice president of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. She has served for more than 15 years in national health policy-making positions, with a focus on indigenous health. She has a law degree and a certificate in Indian law from the University of New Mexico School of Law. Her undergraduate degree was in education with a minor in bilingual education from the University of Alaska Southeast. She is an enrolled tribal member of the Orutsararmiut Native Council of Bethel, in western Alaska.

Davidson steps in to replace Dr. Bob Onders, a physician and attorney. He is returning to work in patient care and in community health education at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. He left that position after the consortium in 2016 joined forces with the small private Alaska Pacific University to turn it into a tribal college. She begins her job April 25.

dr-robert-onders-headshot
Dr. Robert Onders is returning to work as a health care provider and in community health and education at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Pacific University)

Onders said Davidson is taking on leadership of the university at an exciting time as it’s evolving and growing.

He said the transformation to a tribal college is a return to roots. Of founder Peter Gordon Gould, Unangax, Onders said, “if you read his writings from the forties and 50s, he envisioned a tribal university, but there was no such thing at that time.”

Tribal colleges are institutions of higher learning that are governed by a Native American or Alaska Native board of directors. They offer the usual college course work, but work to have a greater number of American Indian or Alaska Native faculty and language and cultural courses, and to incorporate traditional knowledge.

The university is located in the Anchorage university-medical district, which includes the Alaska Native Medical Center, and offices of its co-managers the tribal health consortium and Southcentral Foundation. The University of Alaska Anchorage, Providence Medical Center, and a CDC field station are also part of the U-med district.

Onders said creating a tribally controlled academic health center offering doctoral and master level programs and situated next door to the largest tribal health organization in the country is a unique scenario that doesn’t exist to the same degree anywhere in the lower 48. “I think there’s extreme benefit to having a university connected to a health campus to bring about those programs. And to have both of them under tribal governance, that, I think, is an incredible opportunity.”

When discussions about becoming a tribal college first came up, Onders said there was concern that the change might lose the good — small class size, personal attention, and a focus on Alaska Native cultures — in the transition. “My feeling has been that becoming a tribal university is just adding another official layer to the university that kind of grounded it in Alaska where the university is located.

“So it’s not about taking away anything good. It's about adding to it and enhancing the university.” He said another concern was that non-Native students would be left out. But Alaska Pacific University is not exclusive to tribal members. And as for the emphasis on offering courses on Native language and culture, “I think it's better for all students here, Alaska Native or non-Native.”

Alaska Pacific University launched its transition from a small private college in December 2016 when its 14-member board of trustees resigned and appointed 17 Alaska Native or Native American new trustees.

Onders said the university’s motivation for the transition, in part, was financial. The idea was the university would find its niche in the educational market, and bring in more students and new resources.

Last fall, the university was designated as an Alaska Native serving institution, which like other minority serving institutions, makes it eligible for federal funding. “So we were able to get federal grant grants related to being an Alaska Native serving institution. That helps APU kind of diversify its revenue.” Because it doesn’t get state subsidies, Onders said, “in order to have a robust university, we need to have different revenue streams coming in besides just student tuition. So we're starting down that process.” As a full-fledged tribal college, the university will become eligible for other federal funds. To become a tribal university will take time.

For its part the tribal health consortium was motivated by a need for continuing education for Alaska Native Medical Center staff. He foresees the university having the ability to also partner with the health campus to bring in research dollars.

Becoming a tribal college will also lead to the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing into the university’s entire curriculum. 

Onders said APU’s curriculum is amenable to incorporating those as core competencies so every provider would have some degree of core competencies. “I think that would improve our health care providers in the future, both Alaska Native and non Alaska Native, if they come through a program that incorporates, that’s grounded in Alaska and Alaska Native cultures," he said. As an example, he mentioned courses in the nursing program that provide insights into Native cultures. Trauma informed, culturally humble, culturally aware nurses, he said, will be well grounded in creating an environment that is respectful of Native patients.

Onders counts bringing on the new health care programs and the growth in student enrollment as his biggest achievements during his tenure. 

“Expanding our healthcare options at APU has grown our student enrollment significantly,” said Onders. He said due to those and other changes, Alaska Pacific University has increased enrollment by seven percent in the past year. And the percentage of Alaska Native students went from 16 percent of the student body to 24 percent.

Alaska Pacific University offers 40 degree programs or certificate programs. It has more than 500 students and a full-time faculty of 40, plus a large adjunct faculty pool.

The statewide tribal health system and the entire healthcare industry experience staff shortages. For instance, respiratory, surgery and pharmacy technicians are in demand. Rural tribal health organizations need community health aides and dental and behavioral health aides, paraprofessionals who work under the direction of doctors, dentists, and clinical psychiatrists. Onders sees the university interconnecting education with those needs. The idea is people can become qualified and certified for those jobs, and fill positions in rural Alaska, where labor shortages are more dire than in urban areas.

Onders said the job of president will be interesting, exciting, and challenging for Davidson. He plans to help from his position at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

While Onders is looking forward to providing health care again, he said being university president has been rewarding. 

“As a physician, when I look at education and the potential impacts on individuals lives, their family's lives, their community lives, there's not anything that I know of that is more impactful than getting education in extending life expectancy." he said. "So to me, education is very much a healthcare intervention. And so graduating students and getting them in a position long term where they would benefit their own individual lives, but their families and their entire communities from getting education beyond high school is incredibly gratifying for me. Not only from the education standpoint, but I think from a health standpoint, that’s huge.”

“I think if you think about Alaska and the consortium’s vision that Alaska Native people are the healthiest people in the world, as a physician, I don't think that goal or that vision will come about through hospitals and clinics. It's going to come about through education, housing, sewer, water, and other components, through their culture and language revitalization — things that are protective against the trauma that Alaska Native people experience,” Onders said.

If those same core components are incorporated into education, that’s not only good for health services, “they're good for all people.” Onders said the multi-generational benefits of higher education, good jobs in rural Alaska, and cultural preservation and awareness all will have a lasting impact on Alaska Native health, life expectancy, and quality of life.

Updated to add Dr. Onders' photograph.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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