Editorial: Construction of American Indian Student Center Must be a Priority

In 2005, Montana State University set aside a site on the eastern edge of the Centennial Mall for the construction of an American Indian Student Center. The project, which would cost an estimated $8 million, was announced by then MSU President Geoff Gamble, aimed to create a building that would house resources for MSU’s American Indian students and provide an expanded space for social gatherings, meetings and lectures.


In 2006, $96,000 was spent on completing conceptual design and programming for the building — architectural fees that were paid from the American Indian Student Center Fund at the MSU Alumni Foundation. Approximately $112,000 remains in that account.


Seven years later, that number is the same and the need for the center has increased.


In the Fall of 2011, MSU registered a record number of 545 American Indian students, a 9 percent increase over 2010. In 2012, that number climbed to 580 which shows a steady 5 percent increase each year since 2001. While these numbers are positive, MSU needs to bring this increase to 7 percent in order to reach the goal outlined in the Strategic Plan of 800 students by 2019.


With the help of outreach programs, resources and support, MSU has an institutional retention rate of 60.6 percent for American Indian students. Instrumental in this retention rate are the resources and support available on campus for American Indian students.


The Native American Studies (NAS) department provides services for these students, including the Phyllis Berger Memorial Lecture series, community events such as Native Heritage Day, student advising and helped host the annual American Indian Council Powwow that occurred last weekend. The department, consisting of only four instructional faculty offers a non-teaching minor in NAS, an online graduate certificate and the only Master of Arts degree in NAS in the region. A total of 100 students are currently enrolled in those programs.


The department also houses the American Indian Center. Located in the basement of Wilson Hall, the center provides a study area, resources, counseling and support for MSU’s  native students. Built in the ‘70s when there were less than 25 students, it has seen no increase in space and the area has reached a level where, according to NAS Department Head Walter Fleming, it has “too many functions to be used well.” Last year, for example, the Thanksgiving Dinner had to be held off campus as, “We have simply outgrown that space,” Fleming said.


A recent proposal for the Montana State University American Indian Student Center  outlines the pressing needs and goals for the center, citing the building as a place that will “be instrumental in facilitating the much-needed cultural attunement of our American Indian students for their professional and personal success in global society” and “provide a single, central location for programs that assist in first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities in the timely completion of their higher education goals.”


In addition to this, the center would provide a home for a majority of the resources listed earlier, bringing them under one roof where they can be more easily accessed and identified.


With the growth, it is now even more necessary for Montana State to take action and strengthen fundraising efforts for the center to make its construction a priority so that the dream Gamble supported in 2005 may soon become a reality.