Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas has dedicated much of her professional life to ensure that Native Americans have access to affordable education. When she retires from FLC at the end of the 2018 academic year, she hopes that is her legacy.
Thomas was drawn to FLC in 2010 partly to work for Native American educational opportunities, which she knew the college was dedicated to providing. She was president of Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, where she had worked for nine years.
“The headhunter for the search committee looking for a president here called me and persuaded me to apply for this job,” she said. “I worked a lot with one Native American tribe, Nez Perce, in Idaho, and he knew I was interested in native education.”
In March 2010, she became the eighth president of the four-year institution and the first woman to serve in the role. She was one of 110 candidates vying for the position.
“I want to see to it that we can sustain the contract that was signed back in 1911 because I feel a deep commitment to Native American education,” she said. “I feel this country needs to support its tribes better than it has. Education is the key to a better life and realizing your potential.”
The waiver allows Native American students from across the country to receive free tuition at FLC. The contract was struck more than a century ago between the state and the federal government as part of a land exchange near Hesperus, where the college began as a two-year boarding school.
Since then, the state of Colorado has covered the growing cost for Native American students to attend FLC.
“Any given semester, the school has over 150 tribes represented here,” Thomas said. “There are 567 federally recognized tribes, and we have had over 300 of them represented here at one time or another.”
FLC also awards more degrees to Native American students than any other baccalaureate institution in the United States.
Every year, Thomas travels several times to Washington, D.C., to make certain the contract remains in place for these students by lobbying lawmakers to pick up the tab for out-of-state Native American students to help ease the burden on the state of Colorado.
“The goal of going to D.C. is to get federal help for our Native American students who have tuition waivers,” she said. “The state of Colorado has been funding it this entire time. In 1911, nobody envisioned this many students, but it is a contract. My argument is that out of fairness, the federal government should help us support our Native American students.”
The college currently has 1,160 students who receive the waiver, or approximately 33 percent of the student body.
The yearly tuition cost for in-state students is $6,720. For out-of-state students it is $16,872.
Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, of Ignacio, has known Thomas since the beginning of her tenure at FLC, and often joins her on trips to Washington, D.C.
He said that he has never seen a harder working school administrator than Thomas.
“I don’t know how she keeps up with her schedule,” Campbell said. “When we try to make our monthly trip to Washington, D.C., to talk about the tuition waiver, usually every second or third time she is coming from a different meeting in another state, or heading to one.”
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton reintroduced the Native American Indian Education Act in the 115th Congress in March.
Campbell said getting the bill passed has been a long process, but that is common.
“A lot of people think you introduce a bill and it magically gets passed,” he said. “Every dollar is hotly contested by different groups. We’ve changed it this year to discretionary spending, and it makes it easier to get co-sponsors.”
Campbell said that because there is the possibility that every member of the House and one-third of the Senate could be replaced every two years, it can be a tedious process.
“We re-educate and re-educate,” he said. “We have to keep reinventing the wheel every two years.”
Still, Thomas has not given up hope on the bill, and Campbell often reminds her to be patient when she gets discouraged by the lack of progress.
“When I get impatient, he reminds me that you keep working, making progress and moving forward with it,” she said. “You never give up.”
Thomas, 72, obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from Southwest Minnesota State University in 1978. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1984 with a doctorate in English with a focus on composition and rhetoric.
“I am a flat-lander from Minnesota who went to Idaho for the beauty of the mountains and came to Colorado for higher mountains,” she said.
Thomas taught writing at the University of Idaho before working as the vice provost of academic affairs.
“I really enjoyed the challenge of solving problems and working with people to improve systems and approaches to education,” she said. “I had a wonderful job. I loved that university.”
During her eight-year tenure at FLC, Thomas worked with the Colorado State Land Board and Colorado State University to resolve who controls the Old Fort Lewis campus in Hesperus. She also helped revise curriculum to move all programs to a three-credit model in 2016.
“The credit change has been important because we were the only public institution that did not function on the three-credit basis,” she said. “Our students had trouble transferring into other institutions, and it would often cost them an extra semester or year to graduate. It was also a barrier to students transferring here. About a quarter of our students are transfer students, and we were delaying graduation for them.”
Earlier this year, Thomas announced she would retire in June 2018 after working 34 years in higher education.
She describes working at FLC as a “wonderful and challenging experience,” which punctuates 34 years of working in higher education.
She calls her retirement “bittersweet.”
“I have so many things that I want to do,” she said. “I have a trip planned to Bhutan next year. I want to spend more time with my grandchildren. I also want to learn to play the bagpipes, and spend more time with my husband, Gordon, who is a keeper.”