PABLO – There was a time Robert DePoe III thought when he returned to the Flathead Indian Reservation, he’d do so as a tribal cop.
Instead, the 38-year-old comes back as a university president.
While some people may have been surprised when the Salish Kootenai College Board of Directors named DePoe as the school’s next president on June 5, DePoe was not among them.
“I knew the other candidates were really strong, and it was humbling to be at the same table with them, because of their experience and credentials,” DePoe says. “But I’ve always been successful. I was brought up to understand that you end up in the places you’re supposed to be. I just knew something was right about this, and it worked out.”
DePoe, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, comes to SKC from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he worked in St. George, Utah, as a 638 contract specialist. The title refers to the number of the law that identifies the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.
Prior to that, he spent nine years working for the Paiute Tribe in Utah, most of them as their education director.
But the Flathead Reservation is home. DePoe is from Polson and graduated from high school in Ronan in 1993.
He was 2 years old when Salish Kootenai College – now considered one of the most successful tribal colleges in the nation – was started.
DePoe never attended SKC, but says the college – which he drove past twice a day while commuting from Polson to Ronan for high school – was still important to him.
“I always knew I had a place if I didn’t fit in – I don’t like the term ‘fit in’ – if I didn’t feel comfortable someplace else, I could always come back home and go to school,” he says.
That almost came to be. His first semester of post-secondary education, at North Idaho College, “didn’t go so well,” DePoe says. “I was real young,” and he left and came home to the Flathead Reservation.
A job at the local mill helped him figure out he wanted more, and that education was the key. But first, he left on a mission for his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which took him to the Utah Provo Mission.
“And that’s when I found Cedar City,” DePoe says.
Cedar City is home to Southern Utah University, and DePoe and it got along very well. After his mission, he enrolled to major in criminal justice and minor in sociology.
The goal, he says, was to “come home and work in tribal law enforcement or social work,” but after completing his bachelor’s degree, the first job he got was as a social worker with the Paiute Tribe of Utah.
It wasn’t long before he was promoted to education director, at the relatively young age of 27. He was an advisory member of Utah State’s Board of Education, and served as chairman of the Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee.
In Utah, DePoe also earned his master’s degree, in professional communication, from Southern Utah and met his wife of 15 years, Jamie. They have three children, daughters Neah (10) and Kalin (3), and a son, 7-year-old Isaac.
DePoe takes over for Luana Ross, who abruptly resigned from SKC last October after two years in the president’s office, citing “irreconcilable visions” between herself and some members of the board of directors.
Ross also acknowledged that she anticipated it would be difficult to replace the long-serving Joe McDonald, who led the college from the humblest of beginnings in borrowed classrooms on the reservation, to one with more than 1,000 students offering several bachelor’s degrees on a 140-acre campus.
DePoe says he hasn’t thought about what was clearly a rocky relationship between Ross and the board.
“I’m more concerned about my relationship with the board, and so far it’s been great,” DePoe says. “There’s a lot of expertise and institutional knowledge there. We’re all different, and I haven’t compared my relationship with the board to somebody else’s.”
Asked if there are new directions he wants to take the college, DePoe says he wants to talk with faculty, staff and students to get their take on such things. He says it’s his style to carefully weigh pros and cons of issues before making decisions.
“I don’t make decisions off emotions,” DePoe says. “I believe in assessments, in getting all the information possible.”
He does want to improve student recruitment and says SKC can always do a better job of promoting itself.
McDonald tried to convince a teenage DePoe to enroll at SKC.
“Joe was always out in the community, he knew who people were, and he was always talking about the opportunities education can bring,” DePoe says.
Even though DePoe wound up going to college elsewhere, “I never till later realized” the influence McDonald had on a boy who initially dropped out after one semester, he says. “I hope that’s what I can bring to campus, the same feeling Joe gave me.”
DePoe says he grew up in a generation of Indians that has always had tribal colleges as an option after high school.
“I hope that’s what our leaders envisioned when they started them,” he says, “that we’d always know we have that access to education.”
His most impactful initial impression of SKC, DePoe says, came on a campus tour during the interview process.
“I was able to see numerous occasions of one-on-one faculty-student relationships,” he says. “That’s what I was really impressed with. It was heartwarming to know students had an opportunity to build those relationships here. The quality of the faculty and staff, and their dedication to the students – I noticed that right from the beginning.”
DePoe was on campus last week, but was headed back to Utah to help his family pack and move. He’ll also be attending the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s 40th anniversary conference in Santa Fe, N.M., Aug. 7-10.
Ironically, his schedule will force him to miss his 20th Ronan High School reunion.
DePoe will be back in Pablo on Aug. 19 and will have plenty on his plate. The first day of the 2013-14 school year is Sept. 30, the college’s re-accreditation process is fast approaching, he has scores of people on campus he wants to meet and a reservation community he wants to reintroduce himself to.
“All our previous leaders put us in great position to be successful,” DePoe says. “They created the infrastructure and brought together a fine faculty and staff. For myself, the vision is to continue to develop what our ancestors envisioned. They sacrificed a lot so I could have the benefits I have. When I think about the opportunity I’ve been given, I ask myself, what would my ancestors want us to do with this opportunity?”