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USD Indian studies program comes under fire

VERMILLION (AP) -- Some University of South Dakota students are criticizing the school's Native Studies major, saying it falsely advertises coursework and doesn't have enough instructors.

School administrators say they understand the frustration and are making changes that will get the program back on track.

Jackie Hendry of Rockford, Ill., told the Argus Leader newspaper that the program was what drew her to USD. But a year into her studies, the 20-year-old has found the coursework and instruction lacking.

"I was under the impression that it was a great Native Studies program, and I had an interest in that," Hendry said. "I don't want to sound like I hate my school or hate my decision to come there, but I am disappointed."

Former department chairman Edward Valandra said that when the nation's economy started tanking in 2008 and 2009, USD's administrative commitment to the Native Studies department began to falter.

"The problem becomes one of institutional will and institutional commitment," he said. "If you decide to start any program, not just a Native Studies program, there has to be an institutional will of resources for those so you don't set up these programs to fail.

"I guess the challenge in times when there is a budget cut is, usually programs like Native Studies will probably get a second and a third look in order to save money," he said.

USD Provost Chuck Staben disagreed that a lack of administrative support caused problems and that the program has been plagued by staffing woes and low enrollment. The university is still committed to the Native Studies major, and coursework will be taught by several different departments, he said.

"When we tried this new approach, it was very difficult to hire a whole department at once and let it spring forward immediately," Staben said. "That's what we tried to do. We understood what Dr. Valandra wanted to do. He is reasonably well known for his views on a disciplinary approach to Native Studies. Had he been successful in that approach, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Elizabeth Castle, the lone remaining professor in the department, said she has worked hard to provide students with quality classes and meaningful experiences, despite low enrollment and turmoil in the department.

"When a major is not stable and consistent, it is challenging to recruit students," Castle said.

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