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UMD to launch first-of-its-kind tribal administrative degree program

The University of Minnesota Duluth will next year roll out the first online bachelor’s degree program in the country focusing on tribal administration and governance.

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents approved the program last week. UMD already offers a master’s degree in the same area, which was approved in 2011 and was the first of its kind at the time. So far, nearly 50 students have either graduated or are moving through the program. With 22 tribal governments between Minnesota and Wisconsin alone and 566 federally-recognized nationwide, UMD educators and local tribal leaders say a strong need for this public administration-type of bachelor’s degree exists.

American Indian studies staff traveled to various Minnesota tribes to talk with people who worked in tribal government, said Tadd Johnson, director of graduate studies for the department.

“We kept hearing, ‘I would love to takes these classes; I went to college and never finished,’” he said.

The online program is aimed at people who already have an associate’s degree or enough credits through a state transfer program to enroll. It’s possible to take it in person, but that would require four-year attendance at UMD.

Feedback showed that most people wanted an online program, said Jill Doerfler , head of the American Indian studies department at UMD.

Many wanted the ability to keep working and study from home, she said, or not be forced to move to Duluth.

Students will study federal Indian law and tribal government and management; areas that will set them up to handle the unique working environment of a sovereign nation with its own set of rules. They will be required to earn a certificate from the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at the same time.

As the amount of bureaucracy in tribal government increases, Doerfler said, more hiring is being done. The program will give students an understanding of tribal sovereignty and the “unique things that come along with that,” she said.

It will also arm them with basic business, human resources and financial skills.

Administrative departments within tribes include health and human services, natural resources, education, housing, finance and economic development.

“We want students prepared to go into any of those fields,” Doerfler said, and the degree advances naturally into the graduate program for those who want that.

According to the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, Minnesota tribes employ more than 20,500 people in gaming and government operations, which is about 1.5 percent of all jobs in the state.

A proposal for the regents shows that UMD has planned for 12 students the first year. No new faculty members have been hired. Staff from the master’s program will teach both.

Bill Rudnicki has worked as administrator for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Prior Lake, Minn., for more than 20 years. He’s been a “constant learner” he said, but through the years he’s read laws related to Indian child welfare or the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, where a broader understanding would have been helpful.

The degree, he said, would not only be useful to administrators, but those who work within tribes’ many programs.

UMD continues to do a good job of meeting the needs of Indian Country, said Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The Midwest has a critical mass of tribes, she said, and many are regional employers, now seen as “employment of choice rather than out of necessity.”

“People see this as a viable career opportunity and are preparing specifically for it,” Diver said. “To me, that’s a huge jump in the ability of our workforce to be ready to come home or stay home, but also to attract from outside.”

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