Alaska Pacific University plans to become a tribal college

Alaska Pacific University announced on Monday that it had entered into a partnership with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and would move forward with plans to transition from a small, private, liberal arts college in Anchorage to a tribal college.

Officials said in an interview Monday that they had no specific timeline for how long a transition would take, and no details on what specific changes to degree programs or tuition rates students may see in years to come. APU Board of Trustees member John Wanamaker said the board voted at a Monday meeting to partner with ANTHC, and those specific transition details would be worked out.

"Now the work begins," Wanamaker said in an interview late Monday afternoon. "Now the tactics need to be worked out and implemented."

Wanamaker said that, overall, he expects the partnership between the university and ANTHC, a nonprofit tribal health organization, to enhance and expand the university's programs, referring to the future of APU as "APU Plus." He said ANTHC already trains people in health care professions, including dental health aides, and those programs could now move under APU's roof. The university could also provide programs in rural health care delivery, using the tribal health consortium's experience and experts in the field, and attracting students from across the globe, he said.

"This is a big vision here. I don't think these programs are going to be rolled out tomorrow. This is potential and the potential is exciting, " Wanamaker said of the partnership. "This is the best thing going right now for the state of Alaska."

APU will have to make some major shifts if it decides to seek federal recognition as a tribal college, including having a student body made up of a majority of Alaska Native or American Indian students. Wanamaker said he did not immediately have the university's most recent student demographics Monday, however in May an APU trustee said that of the university's roughly 500 students, about 17 percent were Alaska Native or American Indian.

LeeAnn Garrick, ANTHC chief of staff, said in an interview Monday that she expected the number of Alaska Native students at APU to increase over time.


She said ANTHC, located close to the university, saw partnering with APU as a way to provide educational opportunities to Alaska Natives, and increase the workforce. She said the consortium also viewed education as a large part of a person's overall health.

Creating a tribal college, she said, was important to the consortium because "it's a model that will infuse our traditions and values into that curriculum."

Garrick said Monday that roughly a dozen tribal members from across the state, including ANTHC employees, had been named to APU's Board of Trustees. She said a team was working on a transition plan for APU, and expected an "initial" plan in the next 90 days.

Carrie Billy, the president and chief executive officer of the Virginia-based American Indian Higher Education Consortium, told Alaska Dispatch News in May that the process to become a tribal college could take years. If APU made the switch to a tribal college, it could tap into federal funding from the federal Bureau of Indian Education.

Alaska currently only has one federally recognized tribal college, Iḷisaġvik College in Utqiaġvik, the city formerly known as Barrow. Pearl Brower, the college president, said in an interview Monday that she did not have enough information from APU or ANTHC to say whether or not she supported the transition.

"I absolutely support what tribal colleges do, but I don't know exactly what APU's plan is," Brower said. She said she supported having more tribal colleges in Alaska, like in other states, so the institutions could have a greater voice.

Brower also provided some notes of caution Monday, including that APU would have to be "very strategic" in how it recruited students, as enrolling a majority of Alaska Native or American Indian students would likely be "a big undertaking" for the university given that at Iḷisaġvik College, typically between 55 and 60 percent of its 600 or so students are Alaska Native or American Indian students, she said.

Brower also said she had completed a dissertation on indigenous leadership last year for her Ph.D. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and found "it is very difficult to take a Western colonial institution and try to impress on it indigenous leadership styles and modes of education."

Wanamaker, of APU, and Garrick, of ANTHC, did not express similar concerns Monday and said they were excited about the partnership, which they said had been discussed for about a year.

Garrick said the health consortium found APU's small setting "very attractive" and the leadership at both organizations agreed on a common direction.

Wanamaker said the APU Board of Trustees had long "continually assessed strategic opportunities" and looked at how to best provide education at a small, private university.

"It's struggled, historically, as a small institution," he said. "It's hard to provide the quality of education we've provided over these years with 500 students or less and the university was always looking for opportunity in growth sectors."

He said the opportunity to partner with ANTHC was "big."

Carl Tobin, an associate professor of environmental science at APU, said in a brief interview Monday that he supported the partnership between the university and ANTHC, and saw it as a "win-win." He said the partnership could increase the number of students at the university.

Wanamaker said that his message to current students was "nothing changes right now," and he expected opportunities to expand.

"This is not a hostile takeover by ANTHC of the university," he said. "This is a collaboration between these two entities."

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.