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New leadership at White Earth college

Terry Janis is enthusiastic about the potential of the White Earth Tribal and Community College. DL NEWSPAPERS/Paula Quam

The White Earth Tribal and Community College has a new leader at its helm.

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, who says the student population went from a high of 150 students down to 58 last year. It isn’t a number an incoming president is excited to talk about, but for Janis, it isn’t one he’s 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,” said Janis of former school president, Dr. Vincent Pellegrino.

Janis says a lot of turmoil at the leadership level led to a large number of 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 re-accreditation process, and after review, the Higher Learning Commission placed the college on a two year probation.

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

Although Janis says 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 them back up to accreditation standards.

The school has to submit a comprehensive self-study report by December outlining what it’s done to strengthen itself in terms of assessments, integrity, good governance and participation from faculty and staff.

Then in February, the  commissioners will make a visit to the school to determine whether or not it can keep its accreditation.

“It’s huge,” said Janis. “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.”

As if pressure weren’t mounting enough there, Janis is also facing a $200,000 budget deficit because, while their enrollment may be up to 86 this year, funding they receive is based on last year’s enrollment.

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

And yet, Janis fairly 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.”

But although Janis is stepping into an incredible challenge, he isn’t stopping at just getting the basics back. He has expansion on his mind.

While the school is set to physically expand next spring with a new addition to the school that will house student services (currently in a different building), that’s a project with funds already committed to it and 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 the 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 says his goal is to strengthen relationships with other tribal colleges throughout the region to both tap into student numbers and the expertise of valuable educators.

Not only that, Janis says he then wants to build stronger partnerships with area businesses in the health and hospitality sectors to better connect students with the real-life needs of employers.

Janis says although WETCC is a two year college, it is also partnering with the University of Crookston this year to provide an avenue for WETCC 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,” said Janis. “So what we can do is provide support and a space for students …to help them navigate that process.”

New institutes

There are three new institutes in the works for the WETCC, as well, and Janis’s 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,” said Janis.

This 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,” said Janis. 

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,” said Janis. “We want to create — as part of our academic program — an arts emphasis that will help them develop their skills and capacity.

Janis says he wants this done through 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 be one centered around 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 now, Janis is determined to not just float, but sail.