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Dr. Swagger Shares LCOOU’s Strategies for Expanding Education

By Frank Zufall

Sawyer County Record

Dr. Russell Swagger, president of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University (LCOOU) sat down with the Record on Monday, Sept. 25, three days before the Ground Blessing event on Sept. 28, to talk about the expansion plans for the university, a $275 million project expected to take over 20 years to complete that will encompass a new campus off Froemel Road, the front facing area of LCOOU Extension Farm.

Dr. Swagger focused on how the university is in the process of collecting data to guide programing and effectively using the new campus.

New campus

“So it will be very interesting to see as we make this move to the new campus, we don’t totally abandon this one by any means, but it gives us more space,” said Dr. Swagger, “and once we start moving up into that new space, and we really what we start to see unfolding is the vision, a collective vision of all the tribal nations that we serve, and the people within those communities, our elders, our children or university level students, people that are working in the entities, everybody that it takes to make those tribal communities work.”

Farm’s future?

With the creation of a new campus on part of the present Extension Farm, one rumor Dr. Swagger wanted to address is that the farm would be eliminated.

“Matter of fact, what we’re what we are doing under the new plan is we’re moving the farm further back to the south, and it will actually occupy more land than it does right now,” he said, “and it will have a lot more offerings. We just had a meeting — probably about two, three weeks ago — with a group from University of Wisconsin- Madison extension programs, and one of the things that we talked about was the need for us to have a brainstorming session with not just the tribal community here, but all the tribal communities throughout the state and the other states that we sit adjacent to or within and have conversations about what the needs are in terms of the role that the farm can play.”

Dr. Swagger said the Farm needs a clear mission statement on how it is to be used to educate but also provisioning, nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

One idea being prosed is a Garden of Nations, a garden reflecting how different tribes in the state use agriculture for medicine, food and herb that has historical significance.

“When we first started talking to people a little over five years ago about what should be on that new campus, the thing that they talked about, was making sure that everybody, everybody’s perspective, was taken into consideration,” he said, “and that we keep like our mission says, we keep the language and the culture and the history alive, and we make sure that we advance that not just within our own nations, but within everybody that we come in contact with.”

Career technical education

The university has raised between $700,000 to $800,000 for career technical programs and expanding a feasibility study on career technical education to other tribal communities.

The university is also working/cooperating with John Will, president of Northwoods Technical College.

The goal, Dr. Swagger said, is to serve people not currently being served and do it locally so people don’t have to disrupt their lives and support systems by moving away or traveling great distances.

“So having the residents hall there and having career tech-ed programs there, it helps us to start working with groups that haven’t traditionally been served,” he said. “And also giving people an access to either enhance what they’re already doing, or to give them new knowledge for a new set of skills that they need to be able to compete in the workforce and stay in their communities and turn over a new dollar and contribute to the economy and social network and all those kinds of things that are necessary for communities to thrive.”

Economic impact study

The university is planning on conducting an economic impact study to measure “tangibly” the impact of the university. Dr. Swagger said he wants more than anecdotal information to guide the university.

“But we also need to think about what it is that people are telling us about the programming,” he said. “They’re telling us and talking specifically about tribal leaders and students in tribal entities within our organizations that the people that are leaving here and moving into the workforce are providing a whole different level of capability that they hadn’t been able to previously do.

“So in other words, what that tells me is that what we’re doing is having a positive impact, and it is contributing to the needs that the tribal communities have, and people are coming back to us time and again, and trusting us with new types of education that they may have not otherwise considered, or that they may have gone somewhere else for. And so we’re really excited about all those things, and being able to put some numbers to these anecdotal statements, so that people can see from themselves that here’s where we were at; here’s where we’re at now; here’s where we want to be.”


Dr. Swagger said the COVID pandemic greatly impacted the university like it did many institutions.

One big change he sees coming out of the pandemic is that more younger students are enrolling, so the university is seeing a good mix of its older, traditional students who come back for education and younger students right out of high school.

He said there was concern that students might not want to return to a classroom after all the zoom or online education, and he has concerns that for high risk students it is probably better to teach face-to-face to interpret their body language and hear vocal nuances that reveal how the students are really processing their education.

Using data to address challenges, meeting needs

Dr. Swagger said the tribal university is often working with students who begin their educational journey with a “deficit,” some hurdle or challenges that makes it harder for students to achieve their dream.

“When people walk through the door, I think we immediately think, based on our biases, and our experience, that people should be able to just walk right into that classroom and begin learning,” he said, “and that’s not how learning takes place; we have people that walk through the doors that are all at different levels of their capacity to learn.

“And so we have to meet all of those people where they are at. And so now is a good time for us to say, what are all these benchmark data that they call them key performance indicators? What are those pieces of data that we should be gathering, and that we should be looking at every year, or every six months, or whatever we decide we need to do.

“And then being able to measure gains or losses or even plateauing. And then using that data to inform our practices and our policies, and the work that we do that gives you the ability as an organization to kind of take the tendency for us to place value on personal opinions or personal experiences and puts it more so that focus on what is the data actually telling us.

“And then using that data, like I say, to inform all aspects of what we do. It levels the playing field for everybody so that everybody understands that this is the objective review. And when people begin to understand that there’s less of a tendency for people to get caught up in the emotion of things or the losing the objectivity or the foresight that they otherwise would have,” said Dr. Swagger.

He added, “Right now we know what our graduation rate is; we know how we benchmark against other people we understand, you know, trends in enrollment and people withdrawing from courses; we understand what the data tells us about those things.

“But what else does the data tell us about? What are those things that are important for us to offer? What are the strategies that are necessary to support our students so they can be successful? What are the teaching strategies that are effective with certain types of populations versus other types of populations? What are some of the needs that are present for some students and not for other students? And taking all that rigorous, robust kind of information and letting that data that comes from that inform what we do,” he said.

He added, “one thing that that I found to be true no matter where I’ve gone is that if you allow yourself to be led by anecdotal information, that’s the best way to say it, then that will lead you. But if you are using data, then you are able to lead because of the knowledge that you have, based on the data that you’re receiving,” he said.

“What are those things that are important for us to offer?” he said. “What are the strategies that are necessary to support our students so they can be successful? What are the teaching strategies that are effective with certain types of populations versus other types of populations? What are some of the needs that are present for some students and not for other students and taking all that rigorous, robust kind of information and letting that data that comes from that inform what we do,” he said.

He also talked about the importance of letting the data inform the university how the new campus is used.

“And so the expansion is going to not only create that physical space, but I think it’s also an opportunity for us to refresh ourselves and reinvent ourselves and become stronger at what we already do, or even to expand beyond what we do now to doing other things. So I know I’ve said a lot. There’s a lot there. But the reason that we’re doing what we’re doing is it’s in the best interests of the people that we serve. And we know that because it was the people that we serve that have advised us to move in these directions.”

Family and multi-family housing

Next spring, construction on a dormitory or residence hall for 80 students will begin, but the university is also looking at creating family and multi-family housing using Low Income Housing Tax Credits and New Market Tax Credits.

The dormitory will be primarily for single students, but the family and multi-family housing will be for students with families and faculty, especially new teachers or visiting scholars.

“So we’ll have we’ll have the single student population on one end of the campus, and then the families on another end of the campus,” he said. “Just because it’s not ideal to have those two populations in close proximity to each other because they have just such different ways of living their daily lives. And, and so would keep that healthy separation between those two populations.

“And then also have space for faculty. Sometimes we get a Fulbright Scholar that comes here. Sometimes we have visiting faculty, so there’s always a need for that home. When I came here, it took me well over a year to find a place and it was less than ideal. And I can tell you story after story of all the people that run in the same obstacle, you know, so we do need to have at least as a temporary solution for some people,” said Dr. Swagger.


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