Dr. Joe McDonald Looks Back (& Forward) as He Retires from the Helm of Salish Kootenai College
July 1, 2010
Joe McDonald, President of Salish Kootenai College since 1978, retired on July 1, 2010
American Indian College Fund: Who preceded you and will be following you in your position of leadership as the president of Salish Kootenai College?
Joe McDonald: We started as a team, Mike O’Donnell and I. He was a director of the college center on the reservation. I was director of overall programs, Flathead Valley Community College. When we chartered the college, he was the president from 76-78 and then I became the president. On July 1, 2010 Dr. Luana Ross takes the reins as president of SKC.
American Indian College Fund: Tell us about your experience as a smoke jumper.
Joe McDonald: Indian kids do a lot of firefighting. During World War II, there was a shortage of men here. We could put out fires when we were really young. I started going to forest fires since I was 12 years old. So by the time I was 18 I was accepted into the smoke jumpers. [I was] probably the youngest smoke jumper, but I had enough experience to do so. I used to always say “We get to ride to work.” Others had to walk, we ride. Later on, as it got more advanced, they would come in a helicopter and pick you up. It was a lot of fun. I fought fires all over the country. Sometimes you would travel by pick-up, bus or airplane to get back home, because you would be off in some ranger district somewhere in Idaho or Montana. It was a wonderful experience and good pay. I used it to work my way through college; it was a good summer job.
American Indian College Fund: What were your influences in education?
Joe McDonald: Both of my parents went to Haskell. When I was just a little guy, my dad told me you could go to school and take PE all day and I love physical ed. At a very young age I determined that I was going to be physical ed teacher and a coach. So, I had that goal from a very young age. My father was a good influence in that way. I had good high school coaches, teachers in English, science, math and coaching. And when I got into college I had some wonderful professors that were a great influence on me.
The smoke jumpers were a very good influence on me too, because in those days everyone was college-bound –it was a summer job for college students. I was 18 years old and didn’t know what I was going to do, the Korean War was going on, I thought I would join the service after the first summer. All these guys were going back to college and I decided at the end of summer that I wanted to go to college too. So I did. A lot of them were juniors and seniors, some were graduates. It gives you a lot of confidence knowing you are just as good as they were or just as smart. They were great role models for me. I went to Western Montana College in Dillon, Montana, a small teacher’s college. I got an athletic scholarship there and played football, basketball and baseball.
American Indian College Fund: Tell us about the Tribal college movement in the 1970s, now, and moving forward.
Joe McDonald: It was a wonderful experience for me. I was a tribal councilman when we were starting the college and I was very active in an organization of tribes from the Northwest in a five-state region we called the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and I was a delegate and president of that organization. [As I was] getting in with the tribal colleges (at the time there were 8 or 10), it was wonderful to see everyone working together and pulling together, because NCAI and affiliated tribes often didn’t pull together. We were often pulling in different directions. And the great thing about it is that we could argue, have different opinions and have some pretty tough arguments, but we would bury it, forget about it and be friends afterwards and go on. It was really wonderful to be part of that that type of a movement.
It seemed like when I was in tribal affairs, we were always reacting–the government was doing something, we were reacting; white people were doing something, we were reacting; but during the Tribal college movement we were on the offense. And we were making things happen, we weren’t waiting to react. We were getting legislation passed, getting changes made to legislation, getting new legislation introduced, getting appropriations, getting new programs. It’s been a great experience and it hasn’t stopped. We’re aggressive and we are looking forward all the time. We have a couple of pieces of legislation we want to get passed and program changes to existing programs we have. So the group is moving forward all the time.
What’s changed a little has been with the new presidents. They take a while to get their feet on the ground and there is a rapid turnover among presidents, particularly among the new ones. There is a core of about 8-10 tribal college presidents who have done their job for at least 12 years or more and they have become the core of the organization and that’s changed. Getting the new ones involved and getting them active, getting them to work hard is our challenge for the future.
American Indian College Fund: What other challenges do you have? Where do you want the school to go?
Joe McDonald: The challenge is, of course, getting new programs, addressing the changing needs as the world around us changes so fast. Demands for employment are changing fast, too and we have to stay ahead. To stay up front with the program that really meets the needs of people is really a challenge and to find the resources to make those changes and support them is challenging. We are always challenged by finance. Finance is an ongoing problem, not just with us, but with larger universities, too. Government funding is decreasing too, and when you look at the money we’ve got you have to put the inflation factor to it. We’re not much better off than we were in 1982-83, although the fees have gone up from $1,800 per student to $5,800 per student, but if you figure inflation in that same 30 year period, that is a big increase. Those are tremendous challenges.
Another challenge is getting students through school in a time frame that meets financial aid. To get the students ready for programs or with fundamental skills is often a challenge. With the nursing program in particular it is such a difficult program and definite; you really have to be exact.
We want to keep up and stay ahead. I would like to see us get more bachelor degree programs and expand our fine arts. We just now got an auditorium so we would like to work in a drama program and certainly music into the current two-year fine arts program and expand it to four. And health and physical education is a big need. We teach a lot of health and a lot of fitness, but we don’t have a degree program for it. There is a big need for Indian coaches in sports programs for both men and women. I would like to see us get a physical education program that would result in Indian men and women coaching. It is a tremendous need and a great field to work in with a great background to have.
We want to get our distance education better. University of Phoenix is setting the stage for distance education and we would like to be as productive and as effective as they are. We have been working on it for a long time, but we have not had the resources to really develop it.
American Indian College Fund: What were your greatest and most memorable moments?
Joe McDonald:The Legislation for the Tribal College Act passed in the U.S. Senate in 1977. And they (the BIA and other Indian educators) said the U.S. Senate would pass it. But the bill had never passed in the House [of Representatives]. So it got introduced in the House and it got stuck in the post-secondary education committee. They just would not call for the hearing. The staff for the Indian Education affairs had it all ready if one man would just call for the hearing. His name was Bill Ford, a Democrat from Michigan. Finally, they forced him to call a hearing and that day he said, “I call the hearing to consider the worst legislation since I have been in the House.” (Chuckles from Dr. McDonald)
Well, to get a quorum, Carl Perkins was the chair of the whole Education/Vocational committee, which came down to sit in on the hearing. So once the meeting was called to order, a motion was passed and seconded to move the legislation to the floor of the House, where it was going to pass. So effectively the bill passed that day and we were really excited about that. That was a great moment.
Another great moment was when we got our initial accreditation. There hadn’t been a tribal college accredited in the Northwest Association of schools and colleges. So we were the first one. We had the visit, the self-study and we had all that…and the day we got the letter… I was afraid to open it so I lay down. We had a couch in here [his office] then. I lay down on the couch and had my secretary open it and read it. We were advanced to initial candidacy, as it was called back then, which is initial accreditation in 1981. So that was a great moment. We’ve had a lot of them here, things have really gone well.
American Indian College Fund: Is there anything you would have done differently?
Joe McDonald: We were so concerned about student growth and keeping our students, we didn’t push the language as much as we should have. We had cultural leaders come and ask us if we’d make language a graduation requirement and we didn’t. And looking back, I wish that we would have. We weren’t ready to teach language then; it was pretty remedial. If we could have been where we are now, with teaching methods we have, and the teachers we have, we could have done that, but we didn’t. So, it’s hard to get it back in now; at least some proficiency in language. That’s the one thing we probably would have done.
I’d like to see us expand our athletics. It’s been on the back burner for everybody and if we all think that we need it and we all got in it together, we wouldn’t have to be great or playing with state universities and all that, we could have our own athletic program, our own athletic level. There are a lot of things we could do with that in place. But, it’s a hard sell.
I am passing the torch July 1. I would like to stay involved in the Tribal college movement, be on call and an advocate. I want to do what I can as a retiree. I am going to be president emeritus, whatever that means. (Dr. McDonald chuckles) I don’t want to stand in the way of the new president, or be an obstacle, but I would like to assist, if the president needs it. Other tribal colleges need assistance and I’ll be ready to help them and the American Indian College Fund.