Professor Helps Cultivate the Business Skills of the Chickasaw Nation

Courtesy Karli J. Peterson

Karli J. Peterson, who holds an endowed professorship in business administration, paid for by the Chickasaw Nation, at East Central U., in Ada, Okla.: "Education is a very direct path to improving people's lives."
April 17, 2011

Members of the Chickasaw Nation, in Oklahoma, are always in the market for good advice on how to run their many businesses, which include a racetrack, a casino, a natural-gas station, radio stations, and a chocolate factory.

So the Nation, whose territory encompasses all or part of 13 counties in the state, gave East Central University, in Ada, a gift to establish an endowed professorship in business administration.

Karli J. Peterson became its first recipient this year.

An associate professor of business, she has long run courses and workshops to help the Nation's citizens and other residents of the region to run companies small and large. For example, in one course she teaches approaches to collaborating within a multigenerational work force. In another, on team development, she works with two colleagues: One teaches, another analyzes data about what students demonstrate they have learned in the course, and Ms. Peterson writes up the results for publication.

For many years, members of the Chickasaw Nation have been attending East Central and other Oklahoma colleges and universities, and the Nation's governor, Bill Anoatubby, is a graduate in business and accounting from East Central who has also completed graduate courses there. Mr. Anoatubby has been a leader of unusual drive and efficacy. Since becoming the Nation's 30th governor in 1987, he has increased its $11-million annual budget and 250 employees to 11,500 employees and capital outlays of $750-million a year.

Mr. Anoatubby's primary goal "is to improve the Chickasaw people," Ms. Peterson says, "and education is a very direct path to improving people's lives. He really focuses on input, on asking for the best advice, getting the best people, and reaching the best decision." The Nation's gift of $125,000 in 2008 for her endowed chair is part of a much larger effort. It has dedicated more than $15-million to education this year, financing, among other things, an extensive college-scholarship program for Chickasaw students in the hope that they will not only succeed but "will have an impact on the world around them," Mr. Anoatubby said.

Ms. Peterson's educational trajectory speaks of a similar can-do spirit. After growing up in Montana and North Dakota, where populations are sparse but the sky is high, she earned an undergraduate degree in accounting from Moorhead State University, then a master's in business administration from Central Michigan University.

She came to East Central in 2001 from North Dakota, where she had worked as both a college professor and senior federal-credit-union official. Some former colleagues had got jobs at East Central, and, she recalls, "they called and said, 'Send your application—there's an opening in business.' So we all live in the same place again."

She then decided that a doctorate would serve her well. She asked colleagues to relate their experiences of getting one. "That information scared me," she says. "It was so expensive, and there were so many people who said they'd be done in a certain amount of time, and another year went by, and another year.

"I thought, 'No, I don't want to go that route.'"

She called several online, for-profit institutions, including Capella University. Instructors and officials there told her that the institution had a high dropout rate in the first quarter, she said. "It was huge, about 80 percent," she recalls, "but they said that the 20 percent who were left were pretty dedicated. So I thought, 'OK, I'll be in that other 20 percent.' "

She says she enjoyed attending colloquia around the country to meet her instructors in person, and the collegiality she discovered among students: "We'd be doing assignments, and we'd call each other on the phone, and say, 'Oh, it's midnight, but I just assumed you'd still be working on this assignment.'

"I loved that experience."

She started her doctorate in 2004 and finished it in 2007, just shy of her self-imposed deadline. She explains: "My research was on angel investors, and those are really wealthy, busy people. I was living here in Ada, Okla., and interviewing people in the U.K., and on the East Coast and the West Coast. Hooking all that up took me three extra months."

"That doctorate almost killed me," she admits. "I say I enjoyed it, but it was really rugged. I had absolutely nothing else I did. I went to work and worked on my Ph.D. That was it."

But she says that has made her more understanding of the many competing responsibilities her Chickasaw students must juggle as well as their diverse educational needs. Some are potential degree-earning students for East Central, while others are businesspeople looking to develop particular skills. Her philosophy, she says, is simple: "To me it's a requirement that you step up to the plate, and help people out."