Kurt Wilson/Missoulian
Pictured, from left, are Aaron Thomas, Annie Belcourt-Dittloff and Rosalyn LaPier, three of the four tenure-track Native American professors at the University of Montana.

University of Montana Strives for Diversity, Meet Some Tenure-Track Native Faculty

Alysa Landry
March 17, 2013


The Native student population at the University of Montana has more than doubled in the last decade, a trend that has prompted university officials to seek a more diverse faculty.

When David Beck, chairman of the Native American Studies program, arrived at the Missoula campus in the year 2000, about 300 Native students were enrolled, he said. That population has increased to about 800, with Native students enrolled in 88 different programs. The increase more closely aligns the university with the demographics of Montana, home to 12 recognized tribes and seven reservations, and where about 10 percent of the total population reports American Indian heritage.

“As the student population more closely resembles the state population, the university realized it needed the faculty to reflect that as well,” Beck said. “Administrators, faculty and students started realizing that it would be important to have Native faculty in a variety of fields.”

The university supports more than 750 faculty members, but the number of Native, tenure-track professors was disproportionate, Beck said. He estimated fewer than 10 Native professors held tenure-track positions prior to 2010.

Since 2010, the university has hired four new Native, tenure-track professors, including Rosalyn LaPier, an environmental studies professor and the first Blackfeet Indian to receive a tenure-track position in the university’s 120-year history. The other new hires are journalism professor Jason Begay and chemistry professor Aaron Thomas, both of whom are Navajo, and assistant professor of pharmacy Annie Belcourt-Dittloff, who is Blackfeet, Mandan, Hidatsa and Chippewa.

Jason Begay

The University of Montana recruited Jason Begay twice. The first time was in 1998 when journalism professor Dennis McAuliffe encouraged Begay to enroll as a student.

Jason Begay is a journalism professor at the university. (Photo courtesy Jason Begay)

Begay graduated with a degree in journalism in 2002, and went on to work at the New York Times and the Oregonian before returning to the Navajo Nation, where he worked for six years as a government and education reporter at the Navajo Times.

He never thought he’d be a journalism professor at his alma mater.

“I never once considered going into teaching,” he said. “I don’t like standing in front of people and talking.”

That all changed when McAuliffe left his post at the university for a job at the Washington Post. The university then recruited Begay a second time, to take McAuliffe’s place as a tenure-track professor. He started during the fall semester of 2010.

McAuliffe “changed my life when he brought me here as a student,” Begay said. “The idea of doing what he did for me, for someone else, was more appealing than anything else.”

Begay directs American Indian journalism projects at the university, including work with Reznet News, an online site designed to give Native college students journalism experience. He also tries to recruit Native students to the journalism program, a job he calls a “tough sell.”

Prospective journalism students must apply to the program during their sophomore years and get accepted, Begay said. Between 350 and 400 students are in the program; only about 10 are Native.

“It’s hard enough to convince people to come to school here,” Begay said. “It’s even harder to get them into journalism.”

Part of the problem comes from students wanting to return home to work after college, Begay said. All seven of Montana’s reservations have newspapers, but most are owned and controlled by the tribes, so students don’t get excited about watchdog journalism.

“Writing about news in Indian country is important when it comes to how money is spent and all that,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s an abstract idea because most students haven’t seen how independent newspapers operate.”

On top of everything Begay does as a professor, he also is taking classes toward a master’s degree in business administration. He’s hoping to use that degree to help propel American Indian-owned media outlets forward.

That might include another stint at the Navajo Times, but in a business leadership position, Begay said.

“For the foreseeable future, I’m here, teaching in Montana,” he said, “but I definitely at some point want to go back to the Navajo Times.”

Annie Belcourt-Dittloff

Annie Belcourt-Dittloff has spent most of her time during the last two decades at the University of Montana.

Annie Belcourt-Dittloff is an assistant professor of pharmacy and public health at the university. (Photo courtesy Annie Belcourt-Dittloff)

A 1992 graduate of Browning High School, located on the Blackfeet Reservation, Belcourt-Dittloff went straight to the University of Montana, where she earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in clinical psychology. She did post-doctorate work for four years at the University of Colorado before returning to Montana in 2010 when she was hired as assistant professor of pharmacy and public health.

Tenure-track professors have to balance three roles, Belcourt-Dittloff said. They are expected to teach classes, conduct research and perform service.

“In order to become successfully tenured, you have to show productivity,” she said. “It’s a lot to juggle.”

As one of only a few Native professors at the university, Belcourt-Dittloff has added a fourth goal in her journey to become tenured: supporting Native students and the Native community on campus.

“What I hope to continue doing is what I’m doing now,” she said. “Continuing to teach, continuing to do outreach to communities and support Native students.”

Belcourt-Dittloff is using her passion for psychology and public health to teach students about trauma, violence and mental health on Indian reservations. She simultaneously is using research to tackle some of the tough issues that plague American Indians.

“My background being in clinical psychology, I am really interested in mental health as it relates to Native Americans,” she said. “I want to do advanced research, working with communities, tribes throughout the state, to promote research and to build our overall capacity to reduce mental health disparities.”

Natives experience greater exposure to traumatic events and violence than non-Natives, which leads to higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, depression and substance abuse. Those rates are even higher among Montana tribes, said Belcourt-Dittloff, who wants to use her research to develop prevention and outreach programs.

She is particularly interested in resiliency or the ability for individuals and communities to bounce back after traumatic events, she said.

“I look at how people recover from stress or trauma,” she said. “A big part of that is culture and community.”

The number of Native students has quadrupled since Belcourt-Dittloff started school as a freshman in 1992, she said. The increase in Native students and professors is a testament to the university’s dedication to diversity, she said.

“My primary feeling is one of gratitude to the institution in growing Native faculty and to the mentors I have had through the years,” she said. “I hope other universities can look at us and see the long-term picture of diversifying academia.”

Rosalyn LaPier

One of Rosalyn LaPier’s goals as a professor of environmental studies is to grow the number of students enrolled in the program.

Rosalyn LaPier is a professor of environmental studies at the university. (Photo courtesy Rosalyn LaPier)

Tribes are more closely tied to the environment than many other communities are, she said. LaPier wants to see more Native students taking active roles in protecting the environment and advocating on behalf of the earth and Native rights.

“Because I’m interested in the environment, I think there needs to be more Native people who are involved and have degrees in environmental studies,” she said, “then working back at home, in different agencies, promoting Native concerns in relation to environmental issues.”

But introducing more Native students into the discipline is only half the battle, LaPier said.

“The other half of this equation is to educate non-Native people about environmental issues in Native communities,” she said.

LaPier, a doctorate student at the University of Montana, was hired as a tenure-track professor last year and began teaching during the fall semester. She has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in religion. She plans to earn her doctorate degree in environmental history this spring and work to recruit more Native students to the program, which historically has not attracted many Natives.

“Right now, a very small handful of Natives get a degree in environmental studies,” she said. “It’s difficult for a lot of reasons, institutional reasons.”

Native students are at a disadvantage when it comes to science degrees, LaPier said. Students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in environmental science must take 21-40 science credits, including biology, soils, ecology and physics—a course load that can be daunting for students coming from reservation schools.

“Some of the students who come here, especially from reservation schools, they don’t have that math or science background,” she said. “You want those students to come here, but they’re already at a disadvantage, and that’s something within those communities that needs to be fixed.”

LaPier believes a stronger Native presence among the faculty may lead to better recruitment, retention and success of Native students.

“As Native faculty, we can advocate for Native students in the administration, when it comes to things like class size and how money is spent,” LaPier said. “Personal experience is something Native faculty can give to the university, and Native students then feel there are more people that are advocating on their behalf, people they can go and talk to, even if it has nothing to do with the discipline they’re in.”

Aaron Thomas

Aaron Thomas, associate professor of chemistry, also has concerns about the lack of Native students in science programs.

One of his primary goals is to encourage Native students to earn advanced degrees in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Aaron Thomas is associate professor of chemistry at the university. (Photo courtesy Aaron Thomas)

“Because there’s not too many students entering STEM research, I want to start looking at education in grade school, middle school, high school, on up, so they will be prepared and excited to enter fields like chemistry,” he said. “I’ve watched the transition in Native students, in being a freshman in college, away from high school on the reservation, and that’s a challenge.”

Low enrollment in science and math is not just a Native problem, Thomas said.

“It’s a nationwide problem, not just for Native students,” he said. “There’s a nationwide call for more students in science, engineering, math. It’s even more disproportionate for Native students, but it’s important that we get them studying science.”

Thomas believes an increase in Native students studying in the STEM fields can have a direct influence on Native communities. He wants to see Native students receive advanced degrees in science, engineering or math then return home to work in their communities.

“I look at it as economic development for reservations,” he said.

Thomas, who has a doctorate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Florida, was hired last year as a tenured professor and director of the Native American Research Laboratory. He started the job in January.

The Native American Research Laboratory is a microbiology and biochemistry lab for Native students studying the natural sciences. Thomas uses the laboratory to link Native students with advisors and give them space for their research. He also uses his position to link research with tribes.

“The idea is that tribes will have specific research questions and send students to get graduate degrees doing research on those questions,” he said. “For example, ground water studies. Things are happening on or near the reservations, having to do with ground water. A Native student can get a graduate degree looking at this kind of question.”

On top of his responsibilities as a professor, Thomas has taken on the task of being a mentor to Native students on campus.

“One of our roles as Native faculty, we have a little bit more responsibility to reach out to our Native people and help them attain the degree in whatever they choose,” he said. “We have a little bit more responsibility to reach out to tribal communities.”