NIFA Director Calls Tribal Colleges ‘High Priority’

J. Scott Angle, director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, says programs that support tribal colleges will be a top priority, despite the agency’s recent move and reduced staff.

By Melanie Lenart

USDA NIFA Director J. Scott Angle talks with Carl Etsitty of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service program at the  First American Land Grant Consortium (FALCON) conference this fall.

Tribal colleges will be a top priority of NIFA-funded programs as the agency struggles to regain its footing after an abrupt move to Kansas City this fall, the director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture assured tribal colleges representatives during a Denver conference.

“The main question that is on your mind—and, frankly it’s on everyone’s mind who receives funding from NIFA—is will we get it at all, and will we get it on time,” NIFA Director J. Scott Angle acknowledged during his keynote talk at the annual conference of the First Americans Land-Grant Consortium (FALCON). “Tribal colleges are in program area number one so you will get highest priority for all of these administrative type funds. Hopefully that prevents many of the problems that you worry about. But again, I can’t promise you that there won’t be problems.”

His talk on October 28 came in the wake of an October 2 Washington Post article that highlighted how the move has, among other things, halted the release of millions of dollars in funding because most of the employees who approve the grant paperwork and release funds declined to make the move.

Only a skeleton crew of NIFA employees moved with the agency from its longtime headquarters in Washington, DC, to Kansas City, Missouri, this fall. Employees were given three months to decide whether they would make the transition with the agency by late September, even before the agency had selected a permanent site. Many chose not to go, a decision that has worried many in tribal colleges and beyond. 

“Let me put this in context for you. Probably three or four years ago, NIFA had 350 employees,” Angle told representatives from tribal colleges gathered in Denver in late October. “We’ve only got 80 permanent employees right now. There’s no way you can go from 350 down to 80 and not expect some problems. So there will be some hiccups.”

The move has been generating concern since the Trump administration indicated a little over a year ago that NIFA and another USDA agency, the Economic Research Service, would be moving out of Washington, DC, to another location. Initially the list of possible locations reached 136, and only in recent months was it been narrowed down to a few contenders. (See our earlier reporting on the NIFA move here.)

While the administration portrayed the move as a way to save money and bring the agencies closer to their constituents, news commentator Rachel Maddow aired a segment including a speech by Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney on August 2 that suggested the government’s motives went well beyond that.

“It’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me and I’ve tried and you can’t do it,” Mulvaney said in the broadcast. “But by simply saying to people we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, DC, and move you out of the ‘real’ part of the country, and they quit. What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

Fortunately for the TCU extension programs, NIFA National Program Leader Erin Riley was one of those who elected to move to Kansas City with the agency. She received an enthusiastic round of applause by the hundred or so TCU representatives attending the session. Her role includes assisting the three dozen TCUs with the Extension, Research and Equity/Education grants supporting agriculture and natural resources.

Even as employee numbers are down, the amount of work has risen, Angle noted. NIFA now manages more than $1.6 billion in a variety of programs, up from $1.3 billion just a few years ago. Among other things, NIFA funds research, extension and education for the various land grant colleges throughout the country, including tribal colleges and universities. Angle said he has been talking with administrators of various programs to identify which of the NIFA-supported programs might have some flexibility on the timing of funding.

“I’m hearing from many you that you don’t have flexibility,” he told the TCU representatives. Unlike those in many state extension offices, tribal programs would be cut short if federal funding were delayed, his research indicated. That’s why tribal colleges will be among those receiving the highest priority.

NIFA is hiring new employees at a rate of about five a week now, Angle said. At that rate, it will probably take about a year to get the agency up to capacity. In the meantime, he said, remaining employees are working overtime.

“We are growing, but it’s going to be a difficult year,” he said. Angle himself was sworn in as NIFA director only a year ago, soon after word of the pending move had begun to circulate.

Melanie Lenart is an instructor at Tohono O’odham Community College and a frequent contributor to Native Science Report.

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