McDonald didn't plan on staying at Salish Kootenai College for 32
years. That's just the way it happened.
who will turn 77 at the end of March, became the first president
of the Montana tribal college in 1978 and has been its leader ever
since. His retirement attempts at 65, 70 and 75 were all foiled
by institutional uncertainty about finding a suitable replacement.
When McDonald turned 70, the vice president who was supposed to
take the reins was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently died.
a new college president is never easy, but it is especially difficult
for a tribal college when its board strongly prefers to tap someone
who is not only Native American but also a member of its affiliated
tribe. Such was the case at Salish Kootenai College, whose board
wanted McDonald's successor to be a member of the Confederated Salish
and Kootenai Tribes, which share a home reservation.
the two tribes have nearly 7,000 members, about 4,500 of whom live
on the 1.317 million-acre Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana.
Finding a sterling academic leader among them isn't exactly an easy
task, but it was one the college had to take on at around this time
last year, just before McDonald turned 76 and announced his intent
to retire for real this time.
currently on a presidential search committee at the University of
Montana, and most presidents from mid-level colleges and universities
are often found in vice presidents from similar or major universities,"
McDonald said. "The work will be very similar, so the transition
won't be all that big of a deal. But, when you want to get a president
of a tribal college, there are no other tribal colleges [that serve
the same tribe] for them to transition from, unless you're grooming
them on your own campus. It's a big change for us, and these transitions
at tribal colleges often cause a lot of shaking and struggling."
Leaders Close to Home
The overwhelming majority of tribal colleges are served by presidents
who are members of their affiliated tribe. Of the 38 tribally charted
institutions in the United States, 33 of them have presidents who
are from the charter tribe, two of them have presidents who are
Native American but not of the charter tribe and three of them have
presidents who are not Native American.
reason most boards wish to keep tribal college presidencies in the
family is not only cultural but also realistic, acknowledging that
there are likely few candidates with their institution as a career
colleges were created for tribes to educate their own people," said
Carrie L. Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education
Consortium, the small sector's main lobbying organization. "You'd
hope that you'd have native people and tribal members to take those
positions. While some tribal colleges do have national searches
for their presidencies, they receive much fewer applications than
other colleges do. These colleges are mostly in very rural, remote
areas where, frankly, a lot of people just don't want to live. Also,
they don't pay salaries that are comparable to other small colleges."
these realities, tribal colleges naturally tend to attract presidential
candidates who are already tribe members and perhaps have
left the reservation to teach at a mainstream institution
but also have a desire to return home and finish their careers serving
are very few cases where presidents of tribal colleges go on to
mainstream institutions," Billy said. "Lots of people are always,
it seems, looking to move up the ladder. And for a lot of people
who are a tribal college president, that's the highest point on
exception to the rule, Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet became "the
first Native American woman to ascend to the presidency of an accredited
university outside the tribal college system" when she was
named the president of Antioch University Seattle in 2007. She was
previously the president of Diné College, located on a Navajo
reservation in Arizona.
K. Ross, women's studies professor at the University of Washington,
never thought she'd be a college president, but come July she'll
be just that, replacing the only president Salish Kootenai College
has ever known.
the close community shared by many tribe members Ross is
actually McDonald's second cousin Ross wasn't even on the
radar of the college's search committee. Indeed, Ross hadn't lived
or worked on the reservation since 1979. Still, one member of the
college's locally-based search committee knew an ideal pick who
likely wouldn't be attracted by its national advertising of the
spring, I got a phone call out of the blue from my dear uncle, who
was dying in the hospital at the time," recalled Ross, who is 60.
"He said, 'You've got to come home. You're my unfinished business.'
He told me to apply for this position and said that I was the best
candidate and that there was no doubt that I would get the job."
call was in April of last year. Ross' uncle passed away in May.
Ross said she felt compelled to abide by her uncle's wishes and
come from a large extended family of about 500 relatives who are
all very close-knit," Ross said. "This is my nation. And so, I was
away from my family, community and nation. Just like someone who
is from another country, you pine in certain ways for your country
and your people. I've been trying to work my way home for a while,
anyway. When I took the job in Washington, I thought, 'I'm getting
closer.' But, when I heard I got this job I was so happy, but it's
also pretty daunting."
she came to Washington, Ross was a professor at the Universities
of California at Davis and at Berkeley. Still, her only management
experience is with Native Voices, a Washington graduate program
in indigenous documentary film that she co-directs with her husband,
Daniel Hart. Still, it's not leadership skills Ross worries she
excited to go back and immerse myself in the language and culture
again, but I worry that I may be too assimilated that I won't fit
back into my own community," Ross said. "But, I feel I have so much
to offer, having been at these flagship institutions. Still, I'll
need to sit for a year and see where the college is before I really
goals include using her experience in film to help promote Salish
Kootenai College, establishing an office of public relations and
improving race relations in the local community, where white supremacist
groups and Native Americans often collide.
he has no reason to expect that Ross will stay on as president as
long as he has, McDonald did say he hoped Ross would be there at
least a decade, given her age and strong connection to the community.
His advice for her is simple, but he said it's been the key to his
kind and do your best."