The Birth of TCJ: Father’s curiosity launched Paul Boyer on his journey into Indian Country

Aug 15th, 2009 | By | Category: Features, Profiles, Tribal College News
By Juan Avila Hernandez

From its inception in 1988, the Tribal College Journal has been a family affair.

“I was just finishing up a master’s (degree), and around a dinner table my father said, ‘Would you be interested in getting some information on these (American Indian) colleges,’ and I said sure,” says Paul Boyer, the buoyant founder of the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) who published, produced, and edited the magazine until 1995.

The subsequent TCJ editor, Marjane Ambler, calls him a “visionary,” a description he adamantly disagrees with. Boyer says the magazine sprouted not from an idealistic plan but from a combination of his own youthful enthusiasm, the support and guidance of his late father, Ernest L. Boyer (then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching); and a supportive group of tribal college presidents who almost immediately embraced the magazine after its creation.

TCJ FOUNDER. Paul Boyer, above right, produced and edited the Tribal College Journal from 1989 to 1995. (Photo by Hilary Boyer) ERNEST L. BOYER. Also referred to as "A leader of educators and educator of leaders," the late Boyer, above left, published many works on education reform, including several Carnegie Foundation reports. (Photo courtesy of the Ernlest L. Boyer Center, Messiah College)

Since its start, TCJ has documented and reflected the Tribal College Movement on Native American reservations and a First Nations reserve and has also served as a forum for the social, political, and cultural trends in higher education. It has guided and mirrored important intellectual debates on educational models and critical discussions on pragmatic issues such as infrastructure and curriculum.

The magazine is also the sole public space where students, staff, faculty, administrators, and families across the system can communicate with one another and also voice their opinions, share their stories, and even air their concerns over their cherished institutions, which for many may be the best opportunity for their communities’ future successes.

At the beginning of the magazine’s journey, however, the then 22-year-old Boyer was not driven by lofty idealism but by his own curiosity, journalistic acumen, and – according to him – “I just thought it was fun.” At the time, he had a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Empire State College (New York) and a Master’s Degree in Mass Communications from California State University-Chico.

He recalls his mood at the magazine’s inception. “You are so young, and you have no responsibilities, and you’re sort of used to living like an undergraduate student still. You know, hey kids, let’s put on a play, my dad’s got a barn. You can make the costumes. It was just sort of like that. I had no big expectations for it to be a career; I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Father and Son Team

Ernest L. Boyer was the former chancellor of the State University of New York System and a prominent figure in higher education who was “always interested in Indian issues.” His son’s journey into Indian Country began when the elder Boyer suggested the unique assignment, taking him to American Indian reservations throughout the West to collect basic information such as curriculum, infrastructure, and funding on the tribal colleges.

“He had learned there were a number of small colleges run by Indians,” Boyer says. Although the first tribal college opened in 1968 and more than 20 others had opened by 1988, hardly anyone knew anything about them. “My father wanted to know more about them out of personal curiosity more than he wanted to do anything particular.”

After he accepted the informal “assignment,” it soon transformed into an intimate “father and son” project as well as a fact-finding mission. The younger Boyer sent letters to tribal colleges’ presidents throughout the country asking for basic information to conduct his study. Information slowly trickled in, and with this information in hand, the elder Boyer asked his son to go on the road and find out more about the schools and people who were struggling to educate their own communities in isolated areas with few resources.

“It was a great story to tell as a journalist – scrappy college makes good on Indian reservation and brings opportunity to places where unemployment is 80 percent,” Boyer says.

When he visited Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Montana, he toured a new TV station at the tribal college. A few weeks later he went to the Navajo Nation in Arizona and interviewed a man developing a television station at Navajo Community College. “I was surprised to learn that he didn’t know that SKC had a station up and running. No one told him, and he didn’t have an opportunity to meet with his colleagues at other tribal colleges,” he says.

The experience inspired him to consider starting a magazine so the colleges could learn from one another. Later he met with Sinte Gleska College President Lionel Bordeaux and broached his bold idea. Boyer realized he was on the right track when Bordeaux told him, “As a matter of fact, we thought of that, but we really don’t have anybody to do it.”

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