Montana tribal campuses to put historic donations to housing, transportation, more

Montana SKC president: ‘I didn’t know if it was the sweepstakes or Oprah’

Montana Snowbowl pictured on December 20, 2020. SKC students do research in the mountains, and a recent donation by billionaire MacKenzie Scott will help them pay for new vans to take them to research sites.

When Sandra Boham learned billionaire MacKenzie Scott planned to make an historic donation to Salish-Kootenai College, the SKC president broke down and cried.

“I didn’t know if it was the sweepstakes or Oprah. You just want to hug her,” said Boham, president of the tribal college on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

When Richard Littlebear heard Chief Dull Knife College would receive a $1 million gift, he grew suspicious.

“At first, I thought, ‘Wow, this must be a scam,” said Littlebear, president of the campus serving Northern Cheyenne Reservation students and others. “But she (Scott’s representative) assured me it wasn’t a scam.

“She said, ‘Go online and make sure.’ So I did.”

Now, the campuses serving mostly students who are Native American and have low incomes are making plans for the gifts, and basic items such as child care, housing, transportation, and faster internet speeds are top of mind.

Those two tribal colleges and the Blackfeet Community College received word late last year of the game-changing donations from Scott, a novelist, philanthropist and ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Forbes estimated her wealth this week at $55.1 billion.

The money comes with no strings attached, which Littlebear said places a significant obligation on the campus to continue its good stewardship of grants.

“People think that that’s a really good deal, but actually, it puts a lot of responsibility on us to use it right,” Littlebear said.

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One of the biggest needs at SKC is housing, Boham said. A rental for a one bedroom in the area is $800, she said, beyond the reach of the college’s 760 to 800 students and even some staff.

Every year, she said the cost is a problem for potential students:  “We have about 300 that want to come to school here and cannot find housing in the local area. So they don’t come.”

Salish Kootenai College President Sandra Boham (Provided by SKC College)

SKC hasn’t been able to build housing because it’s not part of an incorporated city, so the water hookups aren’t available, Boham said. But all the hookups in the world wouldn’t change the college’s financial situation.

“We would not be able to afford a loan to build those homes,” Boham said. “It would be too much of a financial risk to our college. Now, we can look at those kinds of things.”

Transportation also is an issue, she said. The college offers 24 four-year degree programs, and it is launching next year its first master’s degree, in interdisciplinary natural resources.

In doing research on subjects such as huckleberries, the West Nile virus, or invasive shrimp, students pile into old vans to head to the Mission Mountains or Flathead Lake. Boham said SKC’s needs aren’t extravagant, but that doesn’t mean the college has money for them.

SKC hasn’t shared the amount of its gift, but Boham said it will do so in the future. In short, she said the donation will help with both immediate needs, such as new vans, and also with plans for the future.

“So what this gift from MacKenzie Scott is? It gave us an opportunity to take a really deep breath and look at what we need to do in the long run,” Boham said. “And it will allow us to leverage some of those resources in ways we’ve never been able to do before.”

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At Chief Dull Knife since 1996 and president since 1999, Littlebear said the college has transportation needs as well, along with a need for better internet connectivity. In the fall, COVID-19 spiked in the area, and he said the campus remained closed for the semester.

“We weren’t prepared to give optimal service for virtual instruction,” Littlebear said. “So we’re going to start up again Jan. 25 with face to face (learning). But now if we have to, we’ll be able to use our latest technology for shifting to virtual instruction.”

Chief Dull Knife College President Richard Littlebear (Provided by Chief Dull Knife College)

He said he’ll know more about the direction the campus serving some 300 students wants to go later this month when the board meets. 

Like SKC, Chief Dull Knife has kept tuition at the level of a Pell grant; any higher, and students wouldn’t be able to afford to attend, both presidents said.

Over the phone, Littlebear asked Scott’s assistant the criteria for getting the financial award, and he was told the college was selected because “you were doing a good job.”

“I took that as her saying the college is doing a good job,” Littlebear said. “There are a lot of people working here at the college (60 to 80), and they do a good job. They’re dedicated to the students.”

The president of Blackfeet Community College couldn’t be reached this week, but Karla Bird earlier characterized the gift for the Missoulian: “It was really unbelievable and still is.”

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In a Medium blog post last month, Scott counted nearly $4.16 billion given to 384 organizations. She said her team evaluated 6,490 organizations and conducted deeper research into 822 before making funding decisions.

“These 384 carefully selected teams have dedicated their lives to helping others, working and volunteering and serving real people face-to-face at bedsides and tables, in prisons and courtrooms and classrooms, on streets and hospital wards and hotlines and frontlines of all types and sizes, day after day after day,” Scott said.

Boham said it’s difficult to comprehend the scope of the effect Scott’s donation will have: “I know she’s civic-minded, but I don’t know if she realizes the deep impact this is going to have for our students and our college and our community for a long time.”