After more than three decades of leading Oglala Lakota College as it nourishes the Pine Ridge Reservation and surrounding areas with higher education, President Thomas Shortbull has announced his plans to retire in July. He served as president for 31 of the college’s 50 years.
“On behalf of the OLC Board of Trustees, we want to express our appreciation to President Shortbull for all he has done for our College, and especially his importance to our students, faculty, staff, and the Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Rapid City and the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation,” said Board President Dennis Brewer in a statement.
Shortbull was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2017.
An enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Shortbull served as president from 1975 to 1979 and then from 1995 to 2022. Before becoming president, he had already established himself as a strong leader.
Shortbull was selected as the executive director of the Task Force on Tribal State Government Relations in 1973 and gerrymandering was among the problems he tackled. After Native votes had been divided into three legislative districts near Shannon and Todd counties, Shortbull helped to create a plan redrawing boundaries that would provide for a Native-majority district. The U.S. Department of Justice ordered the state to develop a plan close to what Shortbull proposed for what became District 27.
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“They did come down to the decision that South Dakota had to create a legislative district in that area that would have a majority of the population be Indian,” he said in a telephone interview.
Looking back, Shortbull said the move was important in creating a voice for Native populations.
In 1975, Shortbull became president of what was then the Lakota Higher Education Center. In 1973, he had earned his master’s degree in public administration from the University of South Dakota.
He recalls meeting with Gerald One Feather, a heralded leader who was instrumental in the founding of the college. One Feather, the board chair at the time, asked Shortbull if he would apply to be president.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe chartered the College in 1971. Shortbull explained some of the motivation.
“When I went to the University of South Dakota in 1965, 20 (Native students) entered and only two of us graduated,” he said. “Elders saw the failure rates and said we should try to educate our own people based on being grounded in the culture and history of the people.”
Shortbull also played a vital part in the passage by Congress of the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act in 1978 during the Carter Administration.
“Four of us were key to the passage of it,” he said.
A news release from Oglala Lakota College notes a number of improvements during Shortbull’s tenure.
A new Woksape Tipi, or library building, and new college centers at Pine Ridge, Porcupine, Oglala, Allen, Wanblee, Manderson, Martin and Rapid City were completed. And other improvements, according to the release, “included a Veteran’s Monument; OLC Historical Center; student dormitories at Pine Ridge and Kyle; new Head Start Centers at Wanblee, Kyle, Manderson, Martin; renovation of Pine Ridge Head Start Center; a multi-purpose building housing a collegiate gym and faculty offices; a bookstore; a math and science building; an automotive classroom building; five faculty/staff housing units; and two new Kyle College Center buildings.”
The college’s operational budget also grew from $6.8 million in 1995 to an average of $35 million over the past seven years, not including funding from the CARES ACT, according to the college.
In fall 2021, 1,451 students were enrolled in Oglala Lakota College, with 944 attending one of the Pine Ridge Reservation College Centers, 330 attending the He Sapa College Center in Rapid City, and 177 attending the Cheyenne River College Center in Eagle Butte.
Shortbull said OLC staff members have worked hard to raise funds from a number of sources, federal and local, to provide higher education to people living on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“Our ultimate goal is that every student who comes to our institution will get full cost of attendance paid for by our scholarships and Pell Grants,” Shortbull told the Journal last fall. “One day we hope all of our students will have their costs paid for.”
Shortbull said it may take 50 years to achieve that goal.
Shortbull said that in the college’s 50 years of existence, 1,417 bachelor’s degrees have been conferred, along with 3,249 associate’s degrees. Shortbull said the enrollment in the early days of the college tended to be small, something that makes the overall numbers of degrees all the more striking.
“To have the college graduate about 90 students per year over 50 years is monumental,” he said.
He also emphasized the study of Lakota history, culture and language.
“We’re not only going to get you academic credentials to qualify for positions, but reinvigorate who you are as a people,” he said, explaining that students are required to take courses in Lakota Studies. For bachelor’s degree students, he said, 15 hours in Lakota Studies are required, with at least two courses in the language.
“It’s a different kind of environment,” he added, noting the closeness that develops between students, and also between students and faculty members who understand the sorts of challenges students face outside of class.
“It’s probably the way education should be,” he said.
OLC officials also note the college began managing the Pine Ridge Reservation’s Head Start Program in 2005. The college also established in 2006 the Cheyenne River College Center at the request of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The Center is on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s Reservation.
College officials also note that Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine has ranked OLC “among the highest in graduation Native American students” since 2010.
The advertisement of the OLC president’s position will run from January 5 to March 5. A Search & Screen Committee will review the applications and forward up to three candidates to the Board of Trustees by the end of April, according to the college. The OLC Board of Trustees plans to hire a new president at its May Board of Trustees meeting.
The new president’s first day in office will be in July, with an agreed upon start date negotiated with the Board of Trustees, according to college officials.
For more information about Oglala Lakota College, go to olc.edu.