Native opportunities to serve limited in Southeast academia

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2005

Southeast Tides By Ted Wright

I work in Seattle at a progressive university where the staff, faculty and administration are engaged in a serious and sustained debate on social justice and diversity. I'm thankful for the willingness of my colleagues to join the fight for equal educational opportunity via affirmative action and to examine policy shifts that will actually change the status quo. Few among the active participants in the many meetings I have attended seem willing only to talk. The accent is consistently on action.

At the same time I am embraced within a progressive academic community in Seattle, I miss Alaska and wish that I could have remained in Juneau or Sitka. In fact there is a university position open in Sitka, and I am tempted to apply. But I won't. Since I received my Ph.D. from Penn State in 1990, I have applied for several positions at Southeast institutions of higher education, and have never received so much as an interview. Every one of those positions, with one exception, was filled by a white out-of-state candidate. I don't apply anymore because I understand that the white administrators are looking for the traditional candidate - one who has a long record of efficiently managing budgets, people and programs - regardless of where.

I took a different, less traditional track. I believed my mentors at Penn State who said I should return to Alaska and work for my (Tlingit) people. So instead of running up a string of published articles or working my way up the bureaucratic ladder of a traditional institution of higher education, I worked in programs and on projects that were aimed at helping Alaskans in general and Alaska Natives in particular.

Along the way I tried to gain entry to the higher education system in Southeast. But in recent years, I realized that the University hierarchy was looking for the standard candidate and that they were using the wrong criteria to attract the best candidates for Southeast. I attended university-sponsored forums and strongly recommended that they change their hiring policies to favor candidates with experience working in Alaska, in the region, with Alaska Natives and in rural communities. I suggested that if they did this, maybe their administrators and faculty would perceive their positions as a lifelong commitment rather than a stepping stone to something better outside, a detour through exotic Alaska to a "regular" position down south.

Well, you begin to see why I haven't been hired. I tend to say what I believe needs to be said - and that's not conducive to being taken seriously as someone who will maintain and even broaden the status quo. Plus, like I said, my resume reflects a variety of positions that aren't on the typical track for university faculty employment. And yet, I've been hired and have done well at the State University of New York, Penn State University, Southern Oregon University, University of Alaska Anchorage and Fairbanks, and Antioch University in Seattle. In other words, my academic training and work experiences, the decisions I've made to take a non-traditional track - are viewed as highly desirable assets ANYWHERE BUT SOUTHEAST!

If this were just happening to me I'd say it is because of my activism and non-traditional employment history. But look around Southeast at the colleges and universities and ask how many Alaska Natives or other people of color are in permanent faculty positions, administrative positions, any positions. Ask yourself why there isn't a Native Studies degree program at UAS. The facts speak for themselves. There are plenty of qualified Native candidates. Some are probably even willing to take a chance and apply. But unless something changes at the top levels of the system, the institutional racism that has maintained the white status quo will remain and reproduce itself, ad infinitum. And another generation of Natives will look elsewhere for opportunities to serve.

• Ted Wright is an assistant professor of education at Antioch University in Seattle and a former Alaska educator.

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