UA Regents pull the plug on consolidation, suspend system-wide program review

The University of Alaska Fairbanks. (Photo by NASA/Goddard/Clare Skelly)

With faculty and students on the edge of revolt, the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents voted this morning to pull the plug on any efforts to consolidate the University of Alaska system’s three campuses under a single banner.

The Board of Regents voted 9-2 to reverse course on a single accreditation system, ending an effort that was launched in the face of monumental budget cuts put forward by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy. The effort would have seen a substantial reduction in academic offerings as the state’s three university systems eliminated duplicated programs and focused on a handful of strengths.

The motion, which was proposed by Regent Karen Perdue, puts off consideration of consolidation until at least 2021 when the University of Alaska Fairbanks is set to have its campus accreditation renewed.

In a corresponding action, the board also voted to suspend a system-wide review of academic programs and other university services, including athletics, until the Board of Regents has “further chance to consult with chancellors and other stakeholders on the process.”

The review had been a first step toward an overhauled University of Alaska system as it grapples with looming budget cuts. Cuts to academics would have landed by the end of next calendar year under the originally proposed timeline.

Both consolidation and the system-wide program review have been met with stiff opposition from faculty and students, who’ve argued that their concerns have not been adequately addressed by the UA leadership and the Board of Regents.

That’s largely in light of the fact that Dunleavy ultimately backed away from the one-year cut of $136 million and, instead, reached an agreement with the Board of Regents for a $70 million cut to be parceled out over three years. Students who spoke to the regents today said the new situation doesn’t amount to a budget crisis.

The Board of Regents had already softened its approach to the overhaul in an effort to appease faculty and students by expanding the options it would be considering and slowing down the system-wide program. That did little to quell infighting, which reached new levels in the last two weeks when the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities raised alarms over how the decision-making process was being handled.

The commission said in a letter last month that the campus accreditations were in jeopardy because they didn’t appear to be meeting the requirements to include input from the university community and because the authority in the decision-making process wasn’t clear.

Some opponents of consolidation said they were vindicated by the letter while others pointed out that it was more concerned about process and not the ultimate direction.

The Board of Regents met with officials from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities this morning.

The commission gave little concrete advice today for how the University of Alaska should solve those issues, saying simply that the goal should be to include everyone in the decisions ahead.

“All we’re saying is, please, whatever path you choose think of all the multiple different possibilities there are. Truly, truly, truly engage the chancellors, truly engage the faculty and staff, and certainly the students,” said Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, the president of NWCCU. “I can’t tell you how many students I’ve heard from who’ve said to me that they really want to be engaged in the process. … That’s what we’re asking for is clarification not so much to us but to the community that you’re trying to pull together.”

The Board of Regents went into an executive session after the meeting with NWCCU officials. The motions were made after that closed-door meeting.

The Board of Regents ultimately approved a third motion today that directed the chancellors of each campus to draft their own responses to the NWCCU letter, a recognition of concerns that chancellors have been boxed in by the regents and UA leadership.

Why it matters

Today’s actions go a long way to rebuilding some unity between the Board of Regents and faculty and students that has been pushed to the brink in recent months, but it does little to substantially address the university’s future and likely won’t sit well with the Alaska Legislature or the governor.

Some legislators have long been eager to see an overhaul of the University of Alaska, questioning the need for statewide administration as well as campus-level administrations. To that end, the Legislature-approved budget expects a report from the university on consolidation later this year.

And while students and faculty have asked the university leadership slow down, Senate President Cathy Giessel and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon had requested that the Legislature keep up the pressure for an overhaul.

It’s unclear what’s next for the University of Alaska.

The $25 million in cuts for the current academic year have largely already been handled individually by each campus, but it’s unclear what, if anything, will be done to prepare for the remaining $45 million cuts laid out in the agreement with the governor.

The Board of Regents’ top order of business now is to address the latest concerns raised by the NWCCU, and it appears that actions like the system-wide program review could be restarted once concerns about inclusivity are put to rest.

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