MUSKOGEE — Bacone College, known as Oklahoma’s oldest higher education institution, has been associated with financial instability since its 1880 inception, according to President Ferlin Clark.
But Clark is charting a course that may deliver a measure of sustainability and unite a number of tribes across Oklahoma under an educational umbrella.
Clark took the helm of a floundering Bacone 14 months ago from an interim president. He aims to transition the four-year private institution into a public college with a tribal designation — not exclusively Indian — through a consortium of tribes.
There are 37 Tribal Colleges and Universities in the U.S. established by a tribe or the federal government to provide access to higher education for American Indians.
The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians chartered Bacone in April, and the Osage Nation did so in June. Bacone is in talks with other tribes, including in western parts of Oklahoma, to join, Clark said.
“We’re taking our programs and courses into the tribal communities so educational opportunities are available online, in-person in their community, or they can come to Muskogee,” Clark said in an interview Monday with the Tulsa World. “This movement is allowing these tribes to have ownership in the education of their tribal students. I think that’s one of the most important things because education is the key to opportunities for jobs, career enhancement or improved quality of life.”
Clark said the college isn’t requiring a financial contribution at this point to charter.
For each student who is a member of a federally recognized tribe, Clark said, the college would receive a bit more than $7,000. That would generate about $1.1 million annually, based on 150 such students out of a total enrollment of 300.
The tribal college designation also would allow Bacone to pursue other federal grants.
To become a tribal college, American Indian enrollment must be 51%. Bacone is at 54%, an increase of nine percentage points since the spring semester, Clark said.
He said the college has an internal committee conducting a mandated self-study as part of the application process. He hopes to go before the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s subcommittee on membership and accreditation and then its full board by October.
“I think we’ve demonstrated we’re strong, and that we have a vision, a plan and a team that can make that happen,” Clark said.
Bacone was founded nearly 140 years ago as Indian University, with a plot of land donated by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. But the Creeks can’t charter Bacone, given it established the College of the Muscogee Nation in 2004 in Okmulgee.
The United Keetoowah Band Chief Joe Bunch said chartering with Bacone means Keetoowah students won’t have to apply for federal scholarship money through the Cherokee Nation.
“Bacone was once known for its outstanding nursing, art and business instruction,” Bunch said. “It will give the tribe another avenue for those who want higher education; it will give them a choice. Bacone will also develop courses to meet the needs of tribal governments and instruction on our tribal history.”
In a recent news release, the Osage Nation said the Bacone partnership aligns with its 25-year vision and strategic plan to support more comprehensive cultural curriculum and raise educational goals and expectations.
“The Osage Nation Education Department partnered with Pawnee Nation College and Bacone College for the past several years in an effort to provide on-site educational opportunities and degree programs for Osage Nation members and employees,” Mary Wildcat, education department director, said in a statement. “Through this partnership, many of these students achieved their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in business administration and Native American studies. The decision to charter Bacone College will strengthen and broaden the educational opportunities for the Osage Nation members and all Indigenous people.”
The effort to turn Bacone into a tribal college arose out of financial woes that prompted former interim president Franklin Willis in May 2018 to unexpectedly announce the indefinite closure of the institution.
Willis cited a $2.5 million debt that he in part attributed to some students “scamming” the school by being able but not willing to pay tuition. He lamented a lack of endowment or alumni association to help raise funds, and said a school featuring Bacone’s mission to educate vulnerable students undoubtedly will write off some “bad debt.”
About 90 of 95 full-time employees were laid off.
Clark said the closure announcement was premature and inflicted harm on the school.
The school set about slimming down and streamlining its offerings — including cutting several sports programs — and re-emphasizing educating Native Americans. That included selling Bacone’s nearby Taco Bell at $650,000, the Bacone Inn at $600,000 and the shopping center holding Bacone Commons at $2.85 million.
The dorm space in Bacone Inn no longer was needed, and the amenities in Bacone Commons — welcome center, registrar’s office, library and bookstore — were moved onto campus.
There remain 17 degree paths out of 34 programs. The school is at 61 employees this summer, of whom 12 are part-time and one is a summer adjunct. The total number of employees more than likely will increase for the fall semester.
The college’s goal to enroll 400 students a year ago came up short at 274 in the fall and 224 in the spring. The previous year was a record of 700-plus students.
Clark said enrollment currently is at 280 students. The target remains 400 students for the fall semester, but a “realistic goal” is 350, he said.
The $2.5 million debt is down to about $1.5 million, Clark said, and the school is positioning itself for future gains.
“You have to take into consideration that negative impact of the last administration’s premature actions to announce closure,” Clark said. “So just to remain open has been a blessing; that’s not been easy.”
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