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White Earth college leader embraces challenges

New leader Terry Janis is enthusiastic about the potential of White Earth Tribal and Community College. Paula Quam / Forum News Service

MAHNOMEN, Minn. – White Earth Tribal and Community College’s new leader is embracing his role with enthusiasm amid challenging times.

Terry Janis has taken over as president of the college and is breathing new hope into an institution that has seen its share of hardships over the past couple of years.

“Last year we were at an all-time low for students enrolled,” said Janis, noting that the student population went from a high of 150 students down to 58 last year.

It’s not a number an incoming president is excited to talk about, but it’s not one Janis is backing down from either.

“The anomaly of that low number goes to the trauma of having a president that just wasn’t working out and was eventually forced out last October or November,” Janis said of former President Vincent Pellegrino.

Janis said turmoil at the leadership level led to many students dropping out and staff either being fired or leaving.

On top of that, a year and a half ago the school went through its reaccreditation process, and after review, the Higher Learning Commission placed the college on two years of probation.

“And rightfully so,” Janis said. “It was perfectly appropriate. The college was not doing the things it was supposed to do.”

Although Janis said the school’s interim president, Steve Dahlberg, did a great job in pulling the remaining staff together and trudging ahead with goals, time was of the essence to form a plan that would pull the school back up to accreditation standards.

The college must submit a comprehensive self-study report by December outlining improvements in terms of assessments, integrity, good governance and participation from faculty and staff.

In February, commissioners will visit the school to determine whether it can keep its accreditation.

“It’s huge,” Janis said. “You work like a maniac to get it (accreditation), and if you don’t work to keep it, you lose so much potential. So that’s our No. 1 priority right now.”

Janis also faces a $200,000 budget deficit because, while enrollment may be up to 86 this year, funding the college receives is based on last year’s enrollment.

That has school leaders putting together a capital campaign to try to fill the budget gap.

And yet, Janis shines with optimism.

“It’s all about rebuilding right now, but we’re rebuilding from a place of strength,” he said. “We’re rebuilding from a core staff that is committed … who got through the hard times, came together and have accepted me as the school’s president. And we are all working together well to accomplish everything we need to accomplish.”

Amid the challenges, Janis has expansion on his mind.

While the school is set to physically expand next spring with an addition that will house student services, that project has funds already committed and is not his focus.

His growth has more to do with academics and the creation of new programs.

In the ‘distance’ Online programs aren’t offered yet at White Earth Tribal and Community College, but there’s a reason for that.

“We’re very cognizant of the learning style of our students, and online programs are often cumbersome in IT, and that isolative quality doesn’t match well to the majority of our students,” said Janis, who instead is pushing for more distance learning.

“Where the class may be held in White Earth, but students around other areas ... Fond du Lac, Bemidji, Cass Lake … can join log on and join into that class for a real-time experience. It’s an extended classroom,” explained Janis, who said his goal is to strengthen relationships with other tribal colleges in the region to tap into student numbers and educators’ expertise.

Janis also said he wants to build stronger partnerships with area businesses in the health and hospitality sectors to better connect students with employers’ needs.

He said that although White Earth is a two-year college, it is partnering with the University of Minnesota, Crookston this year to provide an avenue for students interested in a four-year program to get one from Crookston while at the tribal college.

“We’re not ready for online yet, but we like the way Crookston does it,” Janis said. “So what we can do is provide support and a space for students … to help them navigate that process.”

New institutes Three new institutes are in the works at White Earth, and Janis’ goal is to see the school develop them within the next year.

The first one is called Nibi and mahnomen (water and wild rice).

“Two things that are critical resources here,” Janis said.

The institute would create a program with a primary goal of researching the quality of water and wild rice on the reservation to ensure any modern-day trends aren’t affecting the precious resources.

“And we want to engage people of all ages on how to use water, wild rice and how to protect it and manage it appropriately,” Janis said.

The second institute would focus on Anishinaabe arts.

“There is amazing wealth of artistic talent on this reservation that is undervalued and not strongly supported,” he said. “We want to create – as part of our academic program – an arts emphasis that will help them develop their skills and capacity.

Janis said he seeks a summer master’s program that would help more established artists “find their voice” and move their artistic presence to the next level.

The third institute would focus on creating young leadership on the reservation.

“We want to grow leadership capacity in the youth by having them actually do it,” said Janis, spouting off ideas and experts he’s been talking with on how to do that.

For an education institution that has been surrounded by troubled waters for a while, Janis is determined to not just float, but sail.