It was a celebration about the human spirit, pride in one's heritage and family and a commitment to serve one's community. It was about hope and the belief that people can make a difference. The drumbeat of the Honor Song set the tone. It was the University of Utah's 2008 graduating class of the American Indian Teacher Training Program. Nine Indian students earned their education degrees and will leave with a commitment to work with Indian children.

The importance of preparing Native American educators who have the passion and commitment to the welfare of their people cannot be underestimated. Policymakers lament the school dropout rate of other minorities; the plight of Indian children is the worst, yet is lost in the debate. And the U. should be commended for having started such a vital and successful program to educate Native American teachers.

The evening commemoration was filled with the joy and pride of families, many of whom traveled all day to share in the accomplishment of loved ones. The graduates spoke with tears in their eyes while thanking their parents, siblings, children and friends for supporting them and sacrificing to make their education possible.

The graduates said they were motivated to educate Indian children and willing to sacrifice because they knew their future depended on gaining an education. They spoke of the suffering in their communities — suicide, illness, death of children, poverty — and believed that educating children would overcome many of the problems and create a better world for the next generation.

They thanked the university for making it possible and especially praised the Native American professor, Brian Brayboy, who wrote and managed the federal grant. They spoke of the supportive program staff who created an environment that helped them make the adjustment to a different culture and helped them to overcome barriers, persevere and stay motivated so they could achieve their dreams. Dr. Michael Hardman, dean of the College of Education, who joined in the celebration, has lauded the success of the program over its six years and the graduation of more than 40 students, making it possible for many to return to teach Indian children in their communities. Its success seems to have been because it was designed and managed by Native Americans.

The program's future now appears to be in turmoil and in question. It was made possible because of a $2 million federal grant, which the university has turned back because of lack of state funds (less than $1 million, estimate) and the resignation of the Indian faculty person managing the program.

University officials have said they are committed to the education of Native American students. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, David Pershing, senior vice president, said the university hated to give back federal money, "But we cannot accept it if it is going to end up costing us a lot of our own state money." If the university is not willing to put up the money to match its rhetoric, there is no commitment. Two days later, he announced the "rededication" of the university's American Indian Resource Center, which had already been dedicated 12 years earlier, saying, as quoted in the Deseret News, it "was a reaffirmation of the U.'s commitment to American Indian students, faculty and staff." But, somehow it doesn't pass the smell test.

If an institution is committed to educating professionals who will raise the level of education of the most impoverished children in our state, it ought not depend upon one person, or the federal government, to do so. The university can find state and private money to fund other projects, yet it cannot find money to invest for the education of Indian children. It speaks to its values and priorities.

Hardman has plans to renew the vision and commit resources to the teacher education of Native Americans. Hopefully, plans include building on the successes of the past. The dean has it right: "Ultimately, the true test of our commitment will be the success of American-Indian students as graduates of this college."

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: [email protected]