Washington People: Molly Tovar

Buder Center director mentors future leaders of the Native community

Molly Tovar

David Kilper

Molly Tovar, EdD (right), director of the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies at the Brown School, talks with Kellie Szczepaniec, research assistant at the Brown School and member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, in a conference room in Goldfarb Hall. “Molly is committed to advancing educational opportunities for American Indians and has brought significant leadership in this area to our school,” says Edward F. Lawlor, PhD, dean of the Brown School and the William E. Gordon Distinguished Professor.

Molly Tovar, EdD, director of the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies at the Brown School, lives her life by four Rs: Relationships, Responsibilities, Reciprocity and Redistribution.

First defined by La Donna Harris, president of the Americans for Indian Opportunity and a member of the Comanche tribe, the four Rs are the “meaningful values that inspire me,” says Tovar.

Tovar, of both Native American and Hispanic descent, describes relationships as the kinship obligation among everyone. Everyone and everything in the extended family is valued and has a valued contribution to make.

“Responsibility is the community obligation and the understanding that we have to care for those relationships, whether it’s nature or people,” Tovar says.

“Reciprocity is the cyclical obligation between individuals and between humans and nature. Reciprocity is based on everything we see and everything we do. An example is the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life as well as the dynamics between any two entities.”

The fourth “R,” Redistribution, is what drives Tovar.

“Redistribution is the sharing obligation. Its primary purpose is to balance and rebalance relationships,” she says.

“In principle, one should not own anything one is not willing to give away,” Tovar says. “Possessions should not own you. The point is to give them away.

“Generosity is the most highly valued human quality,” she says. “This obligation means sharing — not only material wealth, but information, knowledge, skills, time, talent and energy. It is my responsibility to mentor young future leaders. I have gained experience and education so I can give back.”


Education has always been at the forefront for Tovar.

Research on American Indian students in higher education often focuses on enrollment and retention rates, which are significantly lower than national averages.

“So from the time I was in high school, I was focused on pursing a higher education degree,” Tovar says.

Tovar knew she would get a degree to go back and work with the American Indian community.

“You don’t need to have a degree to help Native communities, but certainly it opens the door,” she says.

She began her career in early childhood education and moved into higher education administration while earning a doctorate at Oklahoma State University.

While at Oklahoma State, Tovar was asked to develop and administer a university-wide program for graduate students, including a comprehensive minority recruitment plan. The Graduate Plan for Enhancing Diversity: A Comprehensive Approach for the Inclusion of Minorities in Graduate Programs received the national Peterson’s Award for diversity from the Council of Graduate Schools.

Tovar served as director of Student Academic Services for the graduate college at Oklahoma State before moving to associate vice provost for Student Services at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. From there, she began her work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“What I appreciated about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was that my value system was a great fit,” Tovar says. “Their mission is about giving and developing future leaders. The organization is driven by specific outcomes and high-impact results.

She managed the Gates Millennium Scholars programs during her tenure as chief operating officer of the American Indian Graduate Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

Tovar then served as the director of leadership development programs at the Gates Scholarship program, overseeing the four partners: UNCF, Hispanic Scholarship Fund, Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, and American Indian Graduate Center Scholars.

According to Tovar, “the foundation challenged me to be innovative and encouraged the team to build national connections.”

Tovar says that she has found success because she values strategic planning and regards listening as a “key element of any place I work and everywhere I go.”

“It’s about listening to individuals; it is making sure that everybody has a place in the decision-making process,” she says.

“Everyone has a valuable contribution to make.”

At the Buder Center

When Tovar joined the Buder Center in 2010, she immediately began developing a comprehensive plan to advance the center’s mission to educate American Indian practitioners and scholars who are committed to addressing issues of social concern in American Indian country.

“I want to continue the Buder Center’s work to prepare future leaders and decision-makers in their communities by helping the students build professional portfolios and improve their research and presentation skills,” she says.

Her plan also includes interdisciplinary collaboration, enhanced alumni connections and engagement, continued curriculum development and professional development, community outreach, and national policy research.

Tovar works closely with the organizing committee for one of the university’s biggest events, the Pow Wow, a festival of American Indian culture that draws participants from around the country. This year’s Pow Wow is Saturday, April 9, in the Field House on the Danforth Campus (news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/22062.aspx).

The university’s Pow Wow is in its 21st year.

“This is a student-run event that brings together the Washington University community, the broader St. Louis community and dancers and guests from across Indian country,” Tovar says.

“The Buder Scholars decide in unity on a theme, which will promote, guide and brings forth a heartfelt issue, celebration or meaning to gather in honor of American Indian/Alaska Natives.”

This year’s theme is “There is Wisdom and Wellness Within the Circle,” which explores the importance of health through the revitalization of traditional knowledge.

“Molly is committed to advancing educational opportunities for American Indians and has brought significant leadership in this area to our school,” says Edward F. Lawlor, PhD, dean of the Brown School and the William E. Gordon Distinguished Professor. “She is also providing great leadership in our broader diversity agenda.

“Her set of experiences and her great energy will advance our school’s plans in the area of diversity and cultural competency,” Lawlor says.

At the university level, Tovar works with various departments both at the Danforth Campus and the School of Medicine on special projects that advance leadership capacity and campus diversity.

“Washington University is an amazing institution, and what makes it amazing are the students, faculty, staff and community,” she says.

Off campus

The four Rs also are evident in Tovar’s life outside of WUSTL. She has developed relationships with women in Panama and is working on a book, The Entrepreneur’s Spirit: American Indian Women edition.

“I have been working in Panama for the past six years,” she says. “I meet with village people to provide ideas for the indigenous women to strengthen and promote asset-building.”

She also mentors a teacher in the village of Volcan, Panama, and provides guidance on writing and obtaining grants from the Panamanian government to help fund a mobile classroom.

In her limited spare time, she hopes to begin exploring her new hometown, St. Louis.

Fast facts about Molly Tovar

Title: Director of the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies at the Brown School
Degrees: BS, vocal rehabilitation, University of Wisconsin-Stout; MAT, Oklahoma City University; EdD, Oklahoma State University
Other facts: She is a hot air balloonist, Native American art collector, birder, skier and member of the International Women Forum.