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APU president visits Ketchikan: Speaks about university’s transformation to tribal college
Robert Onders

Daily News Staff Writer

When Alaska Methodist University was created in 1959, the university’s founder Peter Gordon Gould, an Alaska Native from Unga, intended on producing indigenous leaders that were “reared, educated and trained in Alaska and for Alaska.”

Although its name was changed to Alaska Pacific University in 1978, its president Dr. Robert Onders believes the college is getting back to its core with its plan to become a tribal college. There is only one tribal college in Alaska — Iḷisaġvik College in Barrow.

Onders, APU president since January 2017, visited Ketchikan High School on Tuesday morning, during which he spoke about the university's founder and what it means to become a tribal college.

Kayhi students gathered in the Kayhi auditorium and listened to Onders speak about the university’s founder and his belief that youth in Alaska was the state’s greatest resource.

“Reading the founder’s documents from the 1950s, this is kind of what he envisioned at that time,” Onders said to the Daily News after his talk. “I’ve even met with faculty members that were there, and they feel like this is very similar to why they started the university.”

Onders said the transition will take about three to five years, as the university must meet certain requirements to gain tribal college status. Those requirements include tribal governance, a student body of at least 50 percent Alaska Native or Native American, and chartering or sanctioning tribes.

APU has taken a few steps thus far to meet these requirements and to become a minority-serving institution in the eyes of the U.S. Department of Education, such as tribal governance. Its board of trustees has 18 of 23 members that are Alaska Native or Native American, and that’s the first step of the transition, according to Onders.

He said the next step is redoing the university’s strategic plan and bringing in new programing to reach that 50 percent Alaska Native or Native American enrollment.

“A lot of it, I think, is creating programs that are relevant to rural Alaska, that have jobs in rural Alaska,” Onders said.

He explained that the university plans to bring in health care degrees this fall that incorporate culturally responsive health care, and programs that explore traditional and indigenous culture and knowledge.

“I really think this is APU coming back to why (Gordon Gould) started the university,” Onders said to the Daily News.

Onders is a physician by background, previously working for the Kodiak Area Native Association before being employed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium — which entered into a partnership with the university in December of 2016.

Part of the intent of that partnership was to move in the direction of becoming a tribal college — which will allow both non-tribal and tribal members to attend, according to Onders.

APU is a small private university in Anchorage, educating around 400 full time students and more than 500 students total. Onders said a majority of students that attend the school are from Alaska, but there are some from out of state.