2017-2019 TCU CI Study

The National Science Foundation funded the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) (NSF award 1655185) to review and document the current state of CI readiness at the nation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs). Site visits to 34 TCUs indicate that many TCU IT departments are challenged by fundamental IT operational and infrastructure issues with campus networks and college systems. While some TCUs appreciate and embrace the importance of engaging CI to promote scholarship and research within their institutions, most of the TCUs that have been reviewed are, both for programmatic and campus IT infrastructure reasons, not prepared to move forward with the development and support of advanced CI-enabled initiatives. The AIHEC team envisions a pathway to CI-readiness through a national CI engagement strategy that would provide a framework through which any TCU, regardless of the current status of their IT infrastructure and STEM programs, can develop strong STEM research and education programs that are responsive to local/regional needs and supported by appropriate cyberinfrastructure.

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CI Study Findings, Strategies, and Recommendations

While the TCU site visits revealed a wide range of IT capabilities and challenges among the colleges, the following table describes the most common issues and the extent to which they are shared across campuses.


TCUs affected




Not enough IT strategic planning



IT staffing shortages



Faculty LMS Training



Wireless coverage



Technical equipment refresh rates



Internet connectivity



Centralized authentication



IT professional development



Enterprise Resource Planning systems



Fiber-optic cabling issues

These CI issues fall into three general groups for further discussion below.

Through the study, AIHEC was able to make some general observations regarding the STEM programmatic demand for CI resources.  Although significant among the colleges exists, TCUs can be grouped into three general categories in terms of the current relevance of CI:

  1. Colleges offering AS, BS and MS degree programs in STEM disciplines, with faculty working on research projects/programs that provide research opportunities for undergraduates. We note however that much of the research being conducted at these institutions is not particularly data intensive;
  2. Colleges that offer AS and BS degree programs in STEM DISCIPLINES, including NSF TCUP-funded projects, but whose faculty are not actively engaged in research. There are significant opportunities to strengthen and expand these STEM programs through access to CI resources and faculty engagement in research;
  3. Colleges that offer a small number of STEM courses to meet general education requirements of non-STEM degree programs but offer no STEM degree programs.  These institutions are likely to have a limited history of engagement with the NSF TCUP program.

Most of the TCUs with high quality STEM programs and significant engagement in STEM research do not have local access to advanced data and computing resources to support their research. Although a number of the TCUs in categories 1 and 2 have IT organizations that actively support the campus mission, their STEM research and education programs are not currently driving acquisition of cyberinfrastructure and operational support that is standard at many R1 institutions. 

The challenges to CI engagement at the Tribal Colleges suggests that two parallel but closely related strategies are required to support TCU CI-readiness. These strategic areas of focus are:

  1. a)   IT Capacity-Building: providing reliable and unbiased assistance in training, equipment configuration, and hardware acquisition decision-making through additional funding and training of the existing TCU IT departments. 
  2. b)   Faculty/Administration Engagement: providing outreach and engagement activities to TCU faculty and staff to raise their level of understanding and their ability to access CI-based tools, partners, and resources for both research and education.

Framework for a National TCU/MSI CI Strategy

There is a clear need for coordination at a national level to ensure that each TCU/MSI has access to the support resources necessary to move both their STEM research and education programs and their campus IT infrastructure to a level appropriate to their institutional goals, the priorities of the communities they serve, and the needs of their students.  The outcomes of a national CI strategy should include:

Alignment of TCU academic programs with CI workforce requirements.

TCU students need access to training and education opportunities that prepare them for CI technical jobs as well as to prepare them to pursue their education goals (BS, MS, PhD) that involve data science/research computing skills and applications. The colleges (in coordination with the CI community) monitor changes in technical workforce requirements and associated career opportunities for TCU students.  Academic programs offered by TCUs could be enhanced through online courses that fill course and curriculum gaps in a range of technical areas associated with data science and research computing. Access to online programing and adjunct instructors would allow programs to be significantly more responsive to evolving workforce demands and career opportunities for TCU students.


A. Infrastructure upgrades: Achievement of CI/IT infrastructure that assures access (both on campus and remotely) to data science/informatics resources. This involves both campus technology upgrades and broadband connectivity, particularly to regional research and education (R&E) networks. Two specific areas to focus future efforts for technical upgrades include:

B. Community engagement: data science resources provided through TCUs to the community (schools, tribal agencies, organizations) to support broader adoption of data science tools to support economic, health, social and environmental priorities. The transformative potential of data science/research computing can best be realized by tribal and other marginalized populations when transformative work is driven by the communities themselves. TCUs are ideally placed within their communities to serve as a primary source of training and technical support (in collaboration with national CI partners) in the application of data science tools and processes to improve delivery of services across all community sectors.  This will also drive a local demand for a data science/CI workforce. Two specific recommendations include: