California's Only Tribal College May Have to Close

On a remote stretch of land where stray chickens outnumber students, California's only tribal college is clinging to life against seemingly insurmountable odds.

D-Q University has had its share of hard times since it was founded on the outskirts of this liberal university town west of Sacramento in 1971, during the peak of the American Indian self-determination movement. Its turbulent history includes land disputes with the neighboring University of California at Davis, low enrollment and a loss of federal accreditation in early 2005.

But even its most ardent supporters acknowledge that the school has now hit an all-time low.

In June, the board dismissed the university's interim president, Art Apodaca, accusing him of squandering the school's few remaining assets. It also rejected his proposal to boost enrollment by dividing D-Q into an Indian-only school and a separate, non-Indian one.

With the remaining six students drifting away and no money for even a working telephone line, a handful of board members and community volunteers are desperately searching for a way to keep the school and its mission alive.

"Every day it's a new crisis," said Susan Reece, a former board member. "Every day there's a new group of bills and new debts we didn't know about."

In early August, the six-member board decided to abandon its efforts to keep students on campus for the fall semester. Instead, it will try to attract revenue by renting space for workshops and conferences.

Reece said her biggest fear is that D-Q will lose its 600 acres to the federal government if it is found to be violating its federal property deed, which stipulates that the land must be maintained as an educational institution.

The demise of D-Q University would deal a heavy blow to the tribal college movement, supporters say. D-Q stands for Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl, two iconic native leaders.

The school was one of the six original tribal colleges in the United States, all founded between 1968 and 1972. Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes 34 tribal colleges, most of which are two-year schools.

The programs range in size from several hundred students to several thousand, serving about 30,000 total students nationwide each year, according to Department of Education estimates. They offer two-year associate degrees, and some provide bachelor's and master's degrees and vocational certificate programs.

Indian students "were failing miserably in mainstream institutions before the tribal college movement came around," said Gerald Gipp, executive director of the Virginia-based American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

While many of the current colleges are thriving, he said they have faced their share of hardships. For example, the schools receive about $4,400 per student from the federal government — far less than their average annual expenses require.

In addition, many of the schools are geographically isolated and have to provide basic coursework to students who arrive with a sub-par high school education.

D-Q's turbulent history was preceded by a dramatic birth. In 1971, two California-based American Indian scholars applied for control of the land, a former Army communications center.

After it was learned that the federal government intended to award the land to UC Davis instead, a group of Indian and Hispanic activists jumped the barbed wire fence and refused to leave. UC Davis withdrew its application, and the government gave in to the activists' demand that the area be made a college for indigenous people.

In January 2005, D-Q's accreditation was revoked, stripping the school of its ability to grant degrees or offer course credits that students could transfer to other institutions.

Stable leadership and support from a tribal government and the surrounding community are crucial to a tribal college's success, Gipp said. But he added that ultimately, D-Q and other struggling schools must figure out their own solutions.

"What does it take to develop a viable institution?" he asked. "We haven't really answered that question at this point."