Only 23 percent of American Indian students who enroll at the University of Montana graduate within six years. In an effort to improve that number, UM officials are working on a plan to evaluate and address barriers to academic success among indigenous people.
"It's kind of meant to be a map for the next five years," says UM professor Kathryn Shanley, chair of the committee drafting the plan.
According to the committee, increasing retention involves gaining a greater understanding of historical and contemporary indigenous realities. Shanley says challenges are sometimes alleviated simply by providing information about the academic system, and cites an example of a frustrated student who came to her asking advice.
"She didn't even know there was such a thing as an incomplete," Shanley says. "If people don't teach you these things, you don't know them."
The plan, dubbed "Strategic Initiatives to Guide Native American and Indigenous Education," calls to expand indigenous curriculum and enhance graduate education for American Indian students.
The plan goes before UM's Faculty Senate May 6 for a vote. But after drawing lengthy and at times heated debate during last month's meeting—the Faculty Senate eventually tabled the issue—it remains to be seen if the advisory body will approve it.
UM history professor Linda Frey says concerns she voiced during last month's meeting remain.
"I thought that in some ways it ghettoizes the Native American population by, for example, creating a graduate student organization only for those students instead of integrating them," Frey says.
She also says the plan has significant financial implications at a time of budgetary cutbacks, and that it calls on researchers to be sensitive to ethnic communities, a stipulation that may stand in the way of honest work.
"It's an issue of academic integrity," she says. "I support the Native American studies proposal in general. But I found those three things bothersome."
Shanley says the plan in no way infringes on academic freedoms, and that increasing retention is a worthwhile investment. She notes that moving forward does not require the Faculty Senate's approval, though "it would be much nicer to move forward with them in it."