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Faculty, staff firings at White Earth college spur protest

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MAHNOMEN — Students at White Earth Tribal and Community College are protesting the new president’s decision to fire a handful of faculty and staff members earlier this week, saying those firings would irreparably harm the school’s Native American identity.

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Just two weeks into the job, President Vincent Pellegrino informed four of the school’s 10 or so faculty members this week that their contracts wouldn’t be renewed. Another three staffers were fired. Of the seven let go, five are Native American.

Pellegrino said those moves were part of a necessary restructuring to put the school on solid financial ground and get back in good standing with its accrediting board.

But a group of roughly 15 students and some of the fired faculty members on campus staged a protest outside Pellegrino’s office Thursday, protests that continued Friday.

Mark Anthony Rolo, a member of the small tribal community college’s English faculty until this week, said the new president has "come in and he has trampled on our culture."

"It was a massive firing," he said.

Rolo said Pellegrino initially offered an extension before reneging and handing him a notice that his contract wouldn’t be renewed without any explanation for the reversal. Rolo said three of the faculty members fired this week, including him, are Native American.

Two of the fired staffers were also Native American, said Angel Stanhope, who was fired from her registrar position at the college and is not a Native American.

Protesting students said the firings have amounted to an attack on their culture. Dianne Kier, who graduated last week from the college, said she fears what will happen to the school’s medicinal garden after the staffer who tended to it was fired.

"He knows nothing about our culture. He just came in and massacred our hopes and our dreams," Kier said.

About 80 students – the majority of them Native American – were enrolled this past semester at the small community college in Mahnomen, about a half-hour north of Detroit Lakes on the White Earth Indian Reservation.

Due to the sudden firings, the school has canceled its summer classes.

Pellegrino has a track record of turning around troubled college campuses – if successful, White Earth will be his 23rd, he said – and he said that’s what the school’s trustees and the local tribal council hired him to do.

Pellegrino rolled through the names of colleges he’s helped with accreditation issues over his 30-year career, including Drexel University in Philadelphia, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Saybrook University in San Francisco. He said White Earth isn’t his first stint at a tribal college.

White Earth Tribal and Community College has been put on probation by the Higher Learning Commission, Pellegrino said.

A spokesman for the Higher Learning Commission confirmed the school has been under review since December, but could not comment on the possible outcome of that evaluation or whether the school is on probation.

In a video of the protest posted online, Pellegrino is shown telling a group of protesters Thursday that, "If we don’t get accredited, we lose our financial aid and it’s over. There won’t be a college here for you to go to."

The video shows Pellegrino saying that officials from the accreditation agency told college officials "they never had so much disrespect from faculty and staff as they had as when they came to White Earth college."

Winning back a solid accreditation status required trimming some programs that have strayed from the school’s liberal arts mission, like business or education, Pellegrino said in an interview Friday.

"The faculty that were let go represented the majors of the college that we can no longer do," Pellegrino said.

Stanhope said she supported raising standards at the college to address the issues she said were raised in the Higher Learning Commission, such as stabilizing degree requirements so they don’t shift from semester to semester and setting a timeline for releasing academic calendars.

That’s why Stanhope said she was surprised she was let go. She disputed a claim Pellegrino made to protesters Thursday that all staff and faculty who were fired were told they could reapply for their jobs.

"He didn’t say that at all," she said.

Stanhope said she’s not sure if she agrees with the concerns of protesters who say the firings will strip the college of its Native American identity. Only time will tell, she said.

"I don’t know what direction he is going," she said.

Article by Kyle Potter of the Forum News Service

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