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The Rebirth of D-Q University

The Rebirth of D-Q University

Determined to keep the dream alive, interim president Arthur Apodaca seeks to re-energize California’s only two-year tribal college
By Patricia Valdata

The Phoenix is a traditional symbol of rebirth, but for D-Q University, a bolt cutter may be a more appropriate image. After more than 30 years as California’s only two-year tribal college, the school lost its accreditation in January 2005. The board of directors tried to keep the school open, but last summer they began packing up student records and chained and locked the doors. They even directed the California Department of Transportation to remove highway signs pointing visitors to D-Q.

But a small group of students simply refused to leave. They called upon some of the school’s activist founders for aid — the same ones who started the college in 1971 by climbing a fence and conducting a sit-in. One of those founders, a lawyer named Arthur Apodaca, took a set of bolt cutters and literally reopened the school last August.

How this unique and often troubled college finally collapsed is a complicated story. Its rebirth will be no easy task for the “D-Q Renaissance Team” led by Apodaca, who was appointed interim president by a reconstituted board of directors. He replaced Victor Gabriel, the previous interim president, who resigned last summer.

Founding a New Kind of College
D-Q was founded not long after members of the American Indian Movement occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969. It was the dream of two American Indian scholars, David Risling Jr., known as the “father of Indian Education,” and Dr. Jack Forbes, professor emeritus and former chair of Native American studies at the University of California, Davis. Risling, the founder of the California Indian Education Association and a member of the Hoopa tribe, died last year at age 83. In the early 1970s, Risling taught agriculture at Modesto Junior College, and Forbes was a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Together, they created the Native American studies program that Forbes took to UC-Davis. Then they took the next step.

“They had this plan for not only making Indian culture part of mainstream education, which is what Native American studies was meant to be, but another kind of education that would benefit Indian people in their culture, not designed for the mainstream, but designed for Indian people,” says Kenny Risling, who remembers his father and Forbes discussing their vision over the kitchen table in Risling’s house. “Dad and Jack envisioned an education completely different from what you could get at the UC system.”

According to the younger Risling, the focus at D-Q was to be community development, aimed at students who wanted to return to the reservation after graduation. At the time, American Indian students in schools like UC-Davis were encouraged to stay off the reservation and embrace “mainstream” (i.e., White) society. But students at D-Q would gain not only an education but also specific skills that would help their tribal communities. Forbes and the elder Risling did not limit their scope to the tribes and bands of Northern California, however. They envisioned a pan-Indian, multicultural, four-year university that would serve all the indigenous peoples of North America, including Spanish-speaking Indians from Mexico.

Creating the first Indian-Chicano university in the Americas was an ambitious goal, and they first had to find a location for the school. They planned to apply for control of a former Army communication relay center built in the 1950s and declared surplus in 1970. Located on more than 600 acres outside of Davis, Calif., the site was also eyed by
UC-Davis, which wanted to use it as a primate research facility. About a week before the deadline for applications, then-U.S. Sen. George Murphy, R-Calif., wrote a letter to UC-Davis informing them that they were to be awarded the site. Someone leaked this information to Risling, who immediately sent in the application on behalf of D-Q University. The leaked information was also printed in the local paper, prompting a group of American Indian activists — a young Arthur Apodaca among them — to literally climb the fence of the Army facility and take possession of the site, claiming sovereignty based on an 1858 treaty.

UC-Davis withdrew its application and the activists were granted the land conditionally, although they would not be given the title for another 30 years.

Almost immediately, according to Kenny Risling, the alliance between the Chicano and Indian students “fell completely apart.”

“They just couldn’t make it work,” he says. “In the end, they had to sever the relationship. It was the dream and the idealism that brought them to try and do it, but there were some practical things that just could not be overcome.”

The Ideal vs. the Real
One of those practical problems was outright sabotage by the administration of then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, according to Risling.

“A Chicano man finally confessed that he was being paid as a staff member of Reagan,” Risling says. “He was one of the people who were organizing the Mexican students against the Indian students, and it worked.”

Another practical problem not foreseen by the founders was the difficulty for an intertribal college not located on an Indian reservation to maintain the demographic standards required for them to receive federal funding.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) requires tribal colleges to enroll at least 51 percent of their students from federally recognized tribes. Although there are 562 federally recognized tribes nationwide, in California alone there are 40 tribes not recognized by the federal government. Students from those tribes don’t count towards the required 51 percent. Successful intertribal colleges, like Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., are explicit in their mission statements that they serve students from federally recognized tribes.

In recent years, D-Q’s enrollment of federally recognized tribal students has been well below the requirement, 33 percent according to one Internet source, and as low as 10 percent according to attorney Howard Dickstein, who represented D-Q in the 1980s. And that raises problems in addition to funding, says Dr. Gerald Gipp, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, an advocacy organization that D-Q helped found.

“The whole tribal college movement really started because our people didn’t have good access to higher education,” Gipp says. “Educators and Indian leaders wanted to create environments where our people were the majority, where we not only had control, but we also had the correct emphasis on what was being taught. If we jeopardize that by allowing our student bodies to become the minority, then we’re back in the same boat that we were decades ago.”

It might seem logical for D-Q to seek funding from Indian-run casinos so it wouldn’t have to rely on federal funding, especially with the large and prosperous Cache Creek Casino Resort located not far away, in Brooks, Calif. But Cache Creek is run by the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, who prefer to keep their profits within their community. For them to share their gaming profits would be as strange as a non-Indian casino sharing its profits, says Dr. Henrietta Mann, special assistant to the president at Montana State University and endowed chair of Native American studies.

“The city of Las Vegas, I would say as an example, has a substantial income from gaming revenue, but do you see them giving the money to New York City?” she asks. “Do you see them giving money to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina? Do you see them giving funds to Chicago? These gaming tribes have to create their own infrastructure, to take care of their own tribes first.”

D-Q’s founders envisioned a pan-Indian school at a time when tribes across the country were experiencing a renaissance of tribal identity. Many tribal-specific colleges were founded during the 1970s on reservations where their students lived.

“First Nations people, or the indigenous people of this country, are an exceptionally diverse group of people,” Mann says. “When you see someone that seems to appear identifiably American Indian, generally the first question each person asks of the other is, ‘What tribe are you?’ Or, ‘What nation do you come from?’ Because we are Diné first, we’re Cherokee, we’re Lakota, we’re Blackfeet or Cheyenne … and then we’re Indian.”

D-Q, in trying to accommodate all tribal peoples, may have seemed to ignore the Indians in their own backyard. California tribes were among the smallest and poorest in the nation, living on small “rancherias” instead of large reservations.

“California tribes worked to develop economically as Indian tribes,” says Dickstein. “They built relationships with the non-Indian community, worked with federal and state legislatures, entered government agreements, supported political candidates attentive to their interests, became business savvy and sophisticated and took advantage of the opportunities gaming gave them.”

While the California tribes took a very practical route to prosperity, the administration at D-Q continued to focus on its ideals. But by the 2004-2005 academic year, D-Q was grappling with inadequate funding and mismanagement. Several administrators and faculty lacked credentials, and the school experienced a string of presidential resignations and attrition from its board of directors. When D-Q lost its accreditation, it also lost what few funds remained.

The Renaissance Team
As the interim president, Apodaca faced a daunting catch-22. D-Q had to be open in order to get accreditation restored, but it needed funding to operate, and a non-accredited school can’t get federal funding. In addition, the former administration had filed a suit to remove the students and allow the school’s closure to proceed.

The judge who reviewed the college’s bylaws ruled that the board of directors who were trying to shut down the school were not legitimately appointed. Two board members who had not resigned, Norma Knight and Bernadine Whipple, were ruled to be the core of a soon-to-be-reconstituted board.

After the ruling, Apodaca moved quickly to expand the board to its full 12-member capacity, bringing in people who could govern the school appropriately. He is finding ways for D-Q’s remaining 50 students — down from more than 200 — to take accredited classes. He’s negotiated relationships with area colleges to allow students to continue taking classes at D-Q while accumulating credits from local colleges. But he also has to round up enough funds to keep the lights on and the heat running. His staff and faculty have been “working for gas money,” he says.

While attending to the daily operations of the school, he also needs to fix all the broken pieces that caused the school to lose its accreditation in the first place.

“We need someone in this front office with their Ph.D. in education administration. I have a law degree,” Apodaca says. “We’ve located some Ph.D.s and some folks with master’s, and we’re doing what needs to be done in terms of articulation with schools and other colleges. We have to have experts in financial aid, deans of students, an accounting department. And we have to have systems; for instance, we now have an academic senate that will go over curriculum, criteria and processes.”
In February, Apodaca presided over a “D-Q Renaissance Team” meeting, which included the new board of directors, administration, students, strategic planning specialists and a representative from Sacramento City College, the primary institution working with D-Q to provide for-credit classes.

The team addressed both the requirements to regain accreditation and longer-term goals to achieve Risling’s and Forbes’ original vision of a

four-year university. They are preparing to present their plans to the California Assembly Select Committee on Accreditation. The team is also hoping to influence legislators to designate for D-Q a small percentage of the $1 billion the state government received from Indian gaming last year. And they are planning to address the needs of the local Indian community.

Apodaca is encouraged by the support of Indian groups. For example, the Red Road Pow Wow will be held at D-Q from now on and will bring up to 10,000 people to the campus. And he is keeping meticulous records of all such agreements and financial arrangements, so the next audit will not turn up the kinds of problems that surfaced in the past few years. Among the embarrassing findings were $260,000 spent on a preschool that wasn’t completed, financial aid monies that were not returned to the government after students stopped attending the college, audits that were not submitted and tax forms that were not filed.

D-Q must reapply for accreditation with the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the regional accrediting organization, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. The U.S. Department of Education requires a minimum of two years for a college to correct its problems and reapply.

“We have a tremendous task in front of us; there’s no illusions; there’s no delusion,” Apodaca says.

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