UA Interim President Pat Pitney delivers 2021 AFN address

Dec. 17, 2021

On December 14, UA Interim President Pat Pitney provided an address as part of the Alaska Federation of Natives 2021 Convention. 

President Pitney began her address by showing the video below:

“If you thought you recognized the voice in the video, you’re right -- thank you to Willie Hensley for narrating the video. Thanks also to Julie Kitka for inviting me to speak today - it is an honor to address all of you. 

AFN is celebrating 50 years of ANCSA  –– and at the same time ––  we are all here to focus on Alaska’s next 50 years.  I’m so encouraged by Secretary Cardona’s message and hearing the state’s interest in tribal compacting. This alignment of partners creates the opportunity for innovative approaches to education and pushing the boundaries for transformative change. Recently, our University of Alaska Board of Regents approved the Alaska Native Success initiative –– seeking a similar opportunity for transformative change. 

Thinking about our next 50 years –– Alaska, unlike any other state in the nation –– can drive change. We are small, we can try new approaches and build on what works.  

And, in education, we have an imperative to innovate. Alaska ranks last in the nation on many education indicators. This is our motivation for change. Together, let's create a vision and implement bold change that allows Alaska’s youth to leapfrog other states in the coming decade. We know education is key to healthy individuals and thriving communities.

I see tremendous opportunity for education –– at all levels 

First and foremost is the real promise of broadband Internet access throughout the state. 

With equality in broadband access comes the ability to harness the vast amounts of learning content freely available from wherever you call home –– Kotzebue to Ketchikan and everywhere in between.

Our challenge is to focus on training the next generation of teachers who embrace the vast number of learning tools, who adjust to the learning styles of each individual, who can teach by incorporating our rich and diverse cultures. 

Our Board of Regents set in motion the Alaska Native Success Initiative last year. This November, they approved the Alaska Native Success Initiative strategic plan that includes specific university level strategies and goals for each of our three Universities inclusive of their community campuses – these specific strategies recognize that the mission and programs at our three universities are different yet complementary to the capacity of the system as a whole.

Leading this effort, in concert with university action team leads, is our new Senior Advisor for Alaska Native Success, Institutional Diversity and Student Engagement. You all know her as Dr. Pearl Brower.

Pearl is a UA alum –– she holds four degrees from UAF, including a Ph.D. in Indigenous Studies 

At UAA, another UA alum, Dr. Michele Yatchmaneff, has been appointed the Executive Director of Alaska Native Education and Outreach.  And at UAF and UAS ,we have Dr. Charlene Stern and Ronalda Cadiente Brown.

I want to thank all of the members of the university action teams and steering committee. Many of whom are here today.  

Through ANSI we will change the culture at our universities and have greater accountability.  

We will address the equity gaps we see in the data on our Native students. We will increase the diversity of our entire system. We will recruit and hire Indigenous faculty and staff to have a workforce that reflects our population.  

Research shows that when Alaska Native students have faculty that represent them, they do better in college. As of 2020, more than 20% of all doctoral degrees earned by Alaska Native students in this country have been awarded by University of Alaska Fairbanks. We strive to do more in the coming years.

We want diversity in all our programs –– not just those focused on rural management, Alaska Native languages or art. The more integrated we are in accounting, finance, engineering, health, social work, and more –– the stronger Alaska becomes.  

In 2019, AFN delegates passed a resolution urging our Board of Regents to focus on preserving support for Alaska Native students and Alaska Native programming in the face of budget reductions. 

You asked that we publish an annual report that establishes measurable goals. We have prepared that report for you today. 

In Alaska schools, Alaska Natives make up 25% of the student body and less than 5% of the teaching force. In 2000, the University of Alaska Southeast created the Preparing Indigenous Teachers & Administrators for Alaska Schools (PITAAS) program to address the shortage of Alaska Native teachers. PITAAS graduates are now employed in 26 of the 53 Alaska school districts. 

One example of the success of this initiative is UAS PITAAS graduate Joshua Jackson who earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education through the PITAAS program. Now, he teaches in Juneau and serves as a positive role model for his Alaska Native students in the classroom and as an instructor in the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy Dance Group.

There’s a new graduate traineeship program at UAF to broaden and diversify graduate education in fisheries and marine sciences through greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples and knowledge. The program is called “Tamamta,” which means “all of us” in the Sugpiaq and Yup’ik languages. It’s goal is to elevate Indigenous knowledge and pedagogies to their rightful places as intact systems that can be offered alongside Western marine science and fisheries.

This program is led by assistant professor Dr. Jessica Black, a Gwich'In originally from Fort Yukon and Nenana, who received a competitive NSF grant to broaden graduate fisheries and ocean sciences education and incorporate Indigenous knowledge.

Another example of innovation and success among our Alaska Native students is Michael Martinez, a UAA biological sciences major, who for the past two years has been working, along with a handful of other students, to research how to extract rare earth elements from coal. Martinez was born and raised in Anchorage. His mother is Yupik, from the Village of Kotlik. 

For as long as he can remember, science has been a passion. Martinez believes the research he and his fellow labmates are conducting may have the ability to transform Alaska's mining industry. He recently founded the company Arctic Biotech Oath to develop and market the technology. Michael won the High North Young Entrepreneur Award for his work with this company. 

One of the first targeted efforts to improve Native student success started in 1983 when UA and AFN leaders –– concerned about the high dropout rate and the low number of rural and Alaska Native students completing college degrees –– developed the Rural Alaska Honors Institute, RAHI, a college bridge program which helps Alaska Native and rural students transition academically and socially to college life. 

RAHI alumni have gone on to earn more than 1,200 certificates and degrees, including 149 master’s degrees and six doctorates.

The ANSI initiative will spur more successes in the future

But I want you to know our biggest threat does not come from students choosing to go to other schools –– it's that many Alaskans do not pursue higher education at all despite the many benefits.

I want to thank all of our donors, and especially our ANCSA partners for supporting scholarships. In the last five year, almost $6 million in scholarships awarded to more than 1,700 students can be attributed to AEC. Thank you for your investment.

I commend your pursuit of tribal compacting. Your goals are our goals. Prepared Alaska Native students create a stronger Alaska .  

It is interesting to think that my grandson is 50 years younger than the piece of legislation we recognize today. Moving forward, let's give our Children and Grandchildren an Alaska that embraces education and thrives in this place we call home.

 Thank you.”