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Our View: Thank you, Tom Stritikus

With his team, Fort Lewis College president made enduring gains

When Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus recently shared his news that he was resigning to lead Occidental College in Los Angeles, he said, “We, as a team, helped realize (FLC’s) potential – and it still has even more potential.”

So true. Under his leadership, FLC has made enduring gains.

He steered the school through COVID-19 hampered years and beyond, with faculty teaching under tents and on theater stages, while administrators were especially responsive to student challenges. As a result, FLC’s second-year retention rate and enrollment grew in contrast to what occurred at other colleges.

Under his tenure, focused attention was spent on the hiring of staff, relationships with tribal nations and following through on the promise of free tuition for students with a family income under $70,000.

Stritikus added an Indigenous land acknowledgment and advocated for a trustee seat for a Native American. When hired, he said cultural diversity made FLC’s position attractive.

Stritikus’ collaborations resulted in the most successful philanthropic efforts in the school’s history.

Fundraising was anchored by $2 million for health sciences from a graduate; $10.4 million from locals Marc and Jane Katz for the business school; and $1 million-plus from siblings Karen Zink and Steve Short for a nursing program. In addition, the number of donors of more modest amounts increased.

These feats demonstrated teammates hitting their stride. Stritikus did what the best leaders do – he listened to faculty and staff members, and acted on their requests, modernizing the cultural climate.

Panels with inappropriate representation from the days of the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School were removed in a special ceremony. Native students no longer had to walk alongside hideous words about children “well clothed and happy.”

Now, FLC stands out with efforts toward Native reconciliation, even though more work must be done.

On Oct. 3, 2023, History Colorado released its final report, “Federal Indian Boarding Schools in Colorado: 1880-1920,” that found 31 deaths at the Fort Lewis school, a threefold increase over what was reported annually to Washington.

Before the report’s findings were made public, Stritikus and colleagues got ahead of the news to share FLC’s viewpoint in a guest column in The Durango Herald and The Journal on Oct. 1.

Stritikus, along with Heather Shotton, vice president for diversity affairs, and Ernest House Jr., a trustee, addressed the “unveiling of painful truths to sharpen our focus on the future, including our support for Indigenous language revitalization, Indigenous health and wellness, and fostering students’ skills to help further tribal self-determination and sovereignty.”

Stritikus, Shotton and House saw FLC’s racialized history as reason to heap on responsibilities now to be accountable for “how we can help shape a better future.”

It’s a new place to begin. Expect more recognition, more acknowledgment of the inherent importance of Native cultures.

We also anticipate progress on the school’s strategic plan, workforce readiness, new academic programs, and more Indigenous faculty members and counselors who share cultural identities with students.

Meetings on campus with Stritikus often meant a brisk walk, while he engaged students along our path. We’d rather he stick around.

But we get the need for continued academic and professional growth, and adventures. His visions to do right by all students at FLC were comprehensive, his achievements will be long-lasting.

Occidental, a private, liberal arts college, is fortunate to soon have Stritikus as president.