Alaska Pacific University has started exploring a change in identity — from a small, private university to a federally recognized tribal college, according to leaders at the school.

APU President Don Bantz said Tuesday that officials from the university, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Southcentral Foundation were in the very early stages of the "exploration phase." 

"The goal is 45 days to investigate this and we're just at the initial stage," Bantz said. "It's a lot of territory to cover and three different boards to deal with."

If APU made the switch, it could tap into federal funding from the Bureau of Indian Education, though it would have to make several changes first, including  having a governing board and a student body made up of a majority of Alaska Natives and American Indians.

APU currently has no such requirement for the board. Of the university's roughly 500 students, about 17 percent are Alaska Native or American Indian, said Bonnie Mehner, a member of APU's Board of Trustees.

Mehner said in an interview Wednesday that a committee was formed last week to investigate the idea of becoming a tribal college, or looking at the smaller change of creating a tribal college within APU.

"As a tribal college, we would have to change the board to a 51 percent Native American board," Mehner said. "If it's a school within a school, then the entity would have its own board."

Mehner added that APU is "in the very, very infant stages of looking at this possibility." APU's Board of Trustees discussed becoming a tribal college in a private meeting last week.

"We wouldn't expect to lose students. I think we would add students," she said. "The school would grow, and we have the capability with no change in infrastructure or staff or professors."

Mehner said local Alaska Native leaders first expressed interest in transforming APU into a tribal college. Southcentral Foundation and ANTHC are near APU in the U-Med district of Anchorage.

"Their people are getting degrees and certificates from APU, so they want to expand their ability to educate," Mehner said. "And to do so, they either start their own entity or tie in with another entity."

Southcentral Foundation officials declined to comment. Katherine Gottlieb, president and chief executive officer of Southcentral Foundation, is a member on APU's Board of Trustees.

Michelle Weston, ANTHC public relations director, said Wednesday that no one at the tribal health organization was available to comment.

Currently, Alaska has one tribal college — Iḷisaġvik College based in Barrow. Iḷisaġvik was accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in 2003. Sanctioned by the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, it became the state's first federally recognized tribal college in 2006.

Carrie Billy, the president and chief executive officer of the Virginia-based American Indian Higher Education Consortium, said the process to become a tribal college can take years.

The consortium advocates for the country's 37 tribal colleges and universities. Billy said a tribal college must be chartered or sanctioned by a federally recognized tribe or multiple tribes.

"Tribal colleges are created by federally recognized Indian tribes or Alaska Native villages or corporations to serve their people because they're interested in helping build the tribal economy and address local workforce needs, but also to preserve and revitalize their tribal language and maintain their cultural history," she said.

APU started as Alaska Methodist University, offering its first classes in 1960. It was renamed Alaska Pacific University in 1978.

Mehner said the committee formed to investigate the idea of APU becoming a tribal college, or housing a tribal college, will bring its recommendations to the board, though she didn't expect a decision soon.