U. turns down federal grants for American Indian program

University gives back $2M; program director questions commitment to helping group
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The University of Utah says it deeply regrets giving back about $2 million in federal grants aimed at college students and teachers under the American Indian Teacher Training Program.

But Gwen Spotted Elk, the program's director, questions the U.'s commitment to helping American Indians interested in teaching.

"It's disappointing to feel like the university is not supporting Native Americans," said Spotted Elk, who is also a graduate student at the U. "This was just a huge blow to lose a program that was so successful."

The university was awarded two grants in July by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Indian Education. There was a $1.1 million grant to train math and science teachers and an almost $1 million grant to train teachers in the Four Corners area. The monies would have gone to fund the U.'s American Indian Teacher Training Program.

David Pershing, U. senior vice president for academic affairs, said the university conducted a "detailed budget analysis" of the grants and that's when things got "complicated."

The analysis determined that it would cost the university $1.5 million over the next four years to cover some of the program's personnel and operating expenses not covered by the grants, officials said. The total of $3.5 million would have allowed 20 students to complete the program, officials said.

"We hate the idea of having to give back federal money," Pershing said. "But, we can't accept it if it's going to end up costing us a lot of our own state money."

From 1979 to 2002, 14 American Indian students graduated with a degree in education from the U. Under the program, 30 American Indian students have graduated in four years and nine more are expected to graduate in May, Spotted Elk said.

When the former office of diversity vice president left office in late 2006, Spotted Elk said, U. administrators made changes, starting with eliminating some of the U.'s monies to the program and taking away office space.

Spotted Elk, who has worked with the program for three years, says she could have managed to maintain the grants. But it was obvious, she said, that U. administrators weren't interested in supporting the program.

She claims U. officials restructured the grants without talking to her- which led to the $1.5 million dollars needed from the U. during the next four years. Spotted Elk said the grants could have been managed with the $90,000 a year the U. used to give the program.

"The institution had always been supportive in the past," she said. "It feels like they wanted us to lose those grants."

Pershing said the university tried renegotiating the program's timelines and budgets with the U.S. Office of Education, but it was unsuccessful.

He says he understands Spotted Elk's frustration with the U., but emphasizes that the university is committed to American Indian students.

"I don't blame her for feeling that way, but at the same time, we have to be fiscally responsible."