Three high profile faculty with Native American expertise depart University of Montana

Native American student enrollment ticks up 23 percent at UM since 2018

By: - September 1, 2022 6:45 pm

Fall morning light shines upon Main Hall at UM. (Provided by the University of Montana)

Three high-profile faculty whose work include a focus on Native American fields have left the University of Montana for larger research institutions.

Last month, the University of Washington announced that Monte Mills had joined the campus as a member of the law faculty and would lead its Native American Law Center. Mills, whose focus includes Indian Law, natural resources, and racism, had co-led the Alexander Blewett III School of Law’s Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic and served as one of the school’s acting deans last year. 

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, announced this week that Rosalyn LaPier, enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and Métis, had joined faculty in the Department of History. The campus recruited LaPier, who taught in Environmental Studies at UM, and it also offered a position to her spouse, David Beck, chair of Native American Studies at UM.

Both UW and UIUC count undergraduate enrollment alone at roughly 35,000 compared to roughly 7,000 undergrads at UM, according to 2020 data from U.S. News and World Report. Last fall, UM listed an enrollment of 10,106 including graduate students.

Kelly Webster, chief of staff in the President’s Office at UM, described the three faculty members as “incredibly talented” and said they all planted seeds in Missoula and recruited talented students.

“We have to give them credit for how much they did to establish UM as a place where Native American knowledge and research and ways of knowing matter,” Webster said.

Their departures represent a loss in Native scholarship at the campus, and faculty members note having Native Americans such as LaPier in their ranks supports Native American students. However, Webster and others at UM said the flagship has been focused on growing its number of employees in all areas who are Native American, and it also has seen increases in Native American student enrollment and retention.

“We have people throughout our campus who are Native, not only faculty but staff, who care a great deal about our students, but who also have gone to school here and can attest to the quality of education that’s provided,” said Annie Belcourt, the new chairwoman of Native American Studies.

In 2018, UM counted 577 Native American students, and in 2021, it counted 709, an increase of 23 percent, including in graduate programs. UM also said it counts 86 total Native American employees, including 11 faculty, out of 1,137 total full time employees.

LaPier, who earned her doctorate in history from UM, said she was familiar with UIUC when she got a call asking if she would be interested in relocating, in part because she has colleagues who have worked there. Her answer was “yes.”

After a decade teaching at UM, she’d been wanting to work at a larger, research-based institution. Environmental Studies at UM lists four professors on its website, not including adjunct instructors, and she said UIUC’s history program offers a doctoral degree, has a research budget, and counts some 500 students and 37 faculty.

“I’m not replacing anybody,” said LaPier, also an ethnobotanist. “In fact, the position that I’m filling is a new position.”

In her new job, she’s a tenured faculty member teaching environmental history and Native American history. LaPier said UIUC was interested in attracting a diversity hire, and she said she was attracted to the institution because of its focus on Native American faculty and scholarship.

“My hire is part of this effort to increase Native presence, either Native faculty or people whose expertise, like in the case of David (Beck), is in Native policy or Native issues,” said LaPier, who also holds a research appointment with the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Beck will teach in the Department of History as well, also as a full professor with tenure. He said the university values both teaching and research, and he’s looking forward to the shift in responsibilities.

“We’ll both have more time to conduct our research here in terms of lower class loads and opportunities for time away,” said Beck, whose focus is on federal Indian policy and 20th century American Indian history.

During the last decade, he said UM has been dealing with a diminishing number of faculty, leading to a diminishing number of courses being offered, and a diminishing number of students, although freshman enrollment recently has ticked up. UM also hired a new provost, and Beck said she may bring fresh new energy to UM, which he loved in part for its student population and “amazing faculty and colleagues.”

“I love the University of Montana,” Beck said. “If this opportunity hadn’t come along, I had envisioned myself staying there until I retired.”

Mills could not be reached for comment via email, and his work voicemail had not been set up. However, in comments with UW’s news release, he said he’s looking forward to building on the Native American Law Center’s history, presence in the Pacific Northwest, and partnerships. UW noted Washington is home to 29 federally recognized tribes.

“History, tradition and legacy are really important to me personally,” Mills said in a statement. “I feel so fortunate to be part of the Center’s long history. The center’s reputation, the trust it has built with the community and the work it has facilitated is an outstanding foundation for thinking about what comes next.”

Webster said UM will fill the roles of the departing faculty, but not necessarily with other tenure track positions. However, she said UM has no plans to eliminate any jobs at this time.

“But just like with any role, any time there’s a vacancy, whether it’s a faculty or a staff member, it gives us an opportunity to look at the role and decide what’s best for the institution going forward,” Webster said.

It would be difficult for any institution to rebuild a loss of expertise in one area, especially with multiple people leaving at once, LaPier said. However, Webster said the university is paying attention to diversity in many ways, including with a formal diversity, equity and inclusion plan, and she and Belcourt also said UM has been hiring new Native faculty and staff the last few years, including faculty in social work and law.

“It’s something people notice and tribal communities take note of,” Belcourt said of the Native presence across the institution.

Belcourt, who is Blackfeet, Mandan, Hidatsan, and Chippewa, said she’s also inspired by new collaborations across departments, such as her own program’s work with astronomy and physics in recording “star stories,” tied to creation stories. At the planetarium in the Payne Family Native American Center, they present constellations from an Indigenous framework. 

“Part of what I find exciting about our campus is we’re starting to work across disciplines,” she said, pointing to her own experience as a psychologist who has worked in public health but is now chairing Native American studies. “But I’m not alone.”

This story has been corrected with Belcourt’s full tribal affiliations.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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