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American Indian Higher Education Consortium taps new leader


Renata Birkenbuel 
ICT

Ahniwake Rose, Cherokee Nation and Muscogee (Creek), continues her powerful contributions to Indian Country.

She has been hired as the new president and CEO for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium – known as AIHEC for short. The organization influences higher-education policy for the 37 Tribal Colleges and Universities throughout the nation.

Following in the footsteps of John Philips, interim president after 20 years in the organization, Rose offers a wealth of experience in Indian Country leadership roles and women-oriented initiatives.

The consortium hails Rose as “the collective spirit and unifying voice of Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs)” and “a transformational leader with abundant experience in Tribal policy, state, national, and Tribal mission-driven nonprofit organizations.”

Ahniwake Rose, left foreground left, hung out with Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas, middle foreground, and Francys Crevier, CEO of National Council of Urban Indian Health (right) at the 2023 White House Tribal Nations Summit. In background: Tribal college students, participants in the summit. (Photo Courtesy Ahniwake Rose)

Most recently, she served as the organization’s vice president of congressional/federal relations.

Melvin Monette, Cobell Scholarship Program CEO, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and previous AIHEC board member, praised Rose’s Congressional connections.

“ As an organizational leader, Ahniwake is a fair, consistent and empathetic leader who considers the team she leads in her decision-making. Her years in leadership and awareness of the mechanics of the DC machine easily make her an ideal choice to lead the AIHEC team.”

Rose’s previous leadership roles included serving on various youth-related and education boards, National Indian Education Association executive director and Oklahoma Policy Institute executive director. She also co-founded Vest, an organization focused on empowering women.

Ahniwake Rose previously served as National Indian Education Association executive director. Here she speaks at the 2018 NIEA conference in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo Courtesy Ahniwake Rose)

“Without hesitation, we are confident that Ms. Rose will lead AIHEC based on our assessment of her skills, attributes, and mindset, as well as what we want to see in a day-one-ready President and CEO,” said Elmer Guy, AIHEC board of directors chairman.

As the American Indian Higher Education Consortium celebrates 50 years of existence, Rose said she’s coming on board at “a pivotal time.”

Crucial issues abound as she looks forward to myriad challenges tribal colleges and universities must solve.

Related: Joe Biden celebrates tribal colleges, promises student loan help

“We’re entering the second circle of the tribal college movement, so it’s really the next 50 years,” she said. “And while during the first 50 years we were about growing the foundation and ensuring that we had the proper legislation and some of the initial resources needed to start the tribal colleges, we’re now at a phase where we’re thinking about expansion and growth.”

She concedes that it takes time for an organization to adjust to a new president.

“And so now we have new leadership and, and that can be a strain, not just for our institutions, but for the organization itself. And so, you know, really thinking about how do we come together and reestablish our vision as one, you know, working collectively.”

Post-Covid has created lingering problems, as well, that tribal colleges are constantly working to solve, she said.

“So we’re just now starting to see ‘What does a new generation of college students look like?’ Covid really disrupted higher education. It created a lot of different challenges, including how we think about distance learning and do we have the broadband necessary to create and facilitate that?”

Increasingly, tribal colleges and universities such as the new Red Lake Nation College urban site in Minneapolis are creating programs to address students’ ongoing mental health issues from covid isolation – physically and virtually.

Brick exterior of the new Red Lake Nation College urban site in downtown Minneapolis. The building is located directly across from the U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota Golden Gophers. (Renata Birkenbuel, ICT)

Related: Red Lake Nation College opens new $16 million urban site

“We clearly saw that we have the need for more mental health and behavioral health services on our campus(es),” added Rose. “And overall there’s a bigger and higher pressure on our institutions to frankly do more with less, which leads us to our current political environment.”

As a GOP-heavy Congress and red states increasingly ban or debunk teaching racial history in higher institutions, the schools feel the heat, too, from political powers and movements.

“There is a lot of pushback right now on Diversity Equity Inclusion, or on DEI,” Rose said. “And while natives and native institutions and tribal colleges and universities are not minorities based on our political status from their trust and our treaty responsibilities, still that push on moving away from diversity equity inclusion is impacting us with less dollars going to, and supporting, diversity and less dollars supporting diversity in the workforce and in institutions.”

On the bright side, the number of tribal colleges are steadily increasing. Among new colleges waiting in the wings for full accreditation are the California Indian Nations College, an associate consortium member located in Palm Desert, California; San Carlos Apache College in San Carlos, Arizona; California Tribal College in Sacramento, California. 

Rose expects the Higher Learning Commission to eventually grant full accreditation to those three colleges. 

Other institutions Rose said aim to become tribal colleges are Alaska Pacific University, Pawnee Indian College and A:shiwiw College. Pawnee Indian College, located in Pawnee, Oklahoma and not yet accredited, offers classes through Nebraska Indian Community College.

“We have a number of new institutions just starting to open. We think about ‘What does becoming a tribal college mean?’ And we’re doing all of that with fewer and fewer resources. We’re at a moment where the federal government in Congress is thinking about not expanding appropriations.”

Related: Tribal college students rack up trophies at higher-ed convention

There’s the conundrum. How do current tribal colleges continue to provide crucial services to underserved, mostly Indigenous students and their communities?

“There’s this increased need, this increased demand, but we’re doing it with less and less and in very, very hard appropriations and budget cycles,” Rose added. “So the next few years are going to be pivotal as we think about how … we position ourselves and react to all of these changes.”

Based in Rose’s home state, Oklahoma, Vest is an investment firm and a peer network for women professionals. The organization provides safe spaces for women professionals across industries and across career levels and generations. Vest is focused on supporting indigenous women at work, as its largest investor is the Chickasaw Nation.

“Our focus is on bringing women together to see how collectively they can fix systems in workplaces to make them more inclusive so that our future generations don’t have to suffer from the microaggressions and the toxic workplaces and biases so many of us have faced,” reads the Vest website.

The Tulsa, Oklahoma native and resident will move back to Washington, D.C., to start her new job.

After Rose starts in July, Phillips returns to his day-to-day job as the American Indian Higher Education Consortium director of land grant programs.

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