‘The house is on fire.’ Regents move ahead with consolidation of the University of Alaska

The University of Alaska Fairbanks west campus (Photo by Frank Monaldo/Creative Commons)

The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents voted 8-3 today to move ahead with the consolidation of the University of Alaska’s three main campuses under a single, unified administration.

The motion allows University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen to take immediate action to cut administrative costs across the university while formulating a plan to consolidate the university under a single institutional accreditation as well as a plan for cutting back on the system’s academic program.

The next major decision point will be at the Board of Regents’ September meeting.

The University of Alaska is staring down the barrel of a $136 million cut aimed at it by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy, who delivered a $131 million line-item veto to the university’s budget on top of $5 million cut by the Legislature.

Johnsen opened the meeting with a message to regents to take the state of the university’s finances and its outlook seriously.

“To use an analogy, this board needs to decide whether its house is on fire or whether it’s just toast burning. With the latter, the board has the luxury of engaging in a deliberate and consultative process,” he said. “However, if the house is on fire, I believe the board’s leadership role requires it to act swiftly and leave behind anything that’s not essential to serving our students and our mission.”

Regent Mary K. Hughes took the analogy a step further.

“Not only is our house on fire, but gasoline is being poured on the fire,” she said.

The news that the Legislature recently restored $110 million of the $136 million cut in legislation designed to restore most of the governor’s vetoes while paying out a reduced dividend hardly registered at the meeting. Dunleavy can still exercise his veto power over the legislation, which passed without the votes necessary for an override.

In fact, Dunleavy doesn’t even seem to be entertaining the restoration of funds considered by the Legislature. Instead, he’s offered a restoration of just $40 million in funding if the Board of Regents, which has the sole constitutional authority to oversee the management of the University of Alaska, gives his administration the authority to decide how things are cut.

That proposal includes an elimination of state funding for all research (which would hit research on everything from climate change to petroleum engineering) as well as the elimination of state funding for athletics and the Museum of the North.

“I hope the regents accept this offer,” he said.

Afterward, when the Board of Regents was discussing the deal with Mike Barnhill, the administration’s envoy and architect of the proposal, Barnhill shied away from asserting that the deal was set in stone. He said the administration was open to a discussion as long as overhead costs were addressed.

He did, however, routinely suggest that any of the cuts could be made up by private giving of the many people who’ve written letters of support for the University of Alaska. Without evidence or a timeline, Barnhill said other university systems have been able to accomplish this.

It would also only delay the delivery of the cuts as the proposed plan would still accomplish the entirety of the $136 million cut over two years.

Board of Regents John Davies countered Barnhill’s assertions that supplementing the funds would be easy.

“I’m troubled by what I consider to be the reckless suggestion that we should zero out state support for research. Even if that were an achievable goal, it’s certainly not something we can achieve in one or two or five years,” he said. “We’re not going to run bake sales to run the R/V Sikuliaq. It’s just not possible.”

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which would oversee the transition to a single accreditation university system, warned against cutting deals with the administration, calling it “inappropriate strong-arm ‘guidance’” that would pose “yet another factor as NWCCU considers the long-term viability and accreditation status of the institutions.”

While some regents seemed to be open to negotiating with the governor on the budget, the majority did not want to bank on it. During the campaign season, Dunleavy pledged to not cut the University of Alaska but ended up dealing it a cut that’s more than five times larger than the largest one-year cut the system has ever seen.

Hughes, who was choked up while offering the motion to consolidate the university, said it’s “inappropriate” for the Board of Regents to begin negotiating away its constitutional role to oversee the University of Alaska.

“We have to make our decision irrespective of the universe,” she said. “If the universe all of the sudden gives us a big gift, then great, but we will have done the work we need to do.”

A single vision

The outline of what a new University of Alaska would look like is uncertain but a large part of this is an effort to break through the infighting and backstabbing that has so far characterized the relationship between the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.

The regents considered an alternative proposal that would have doled out the cuts to each of the campuses, giving each campus’ chancellor wide latitude in deciding how the cuts would be handled and what academic programs would be affected.

Each chancellor presented the bare-bones of what such plans would look like, staying away from program specifics, while pledging a new era of cooperation and coordination between the three campuses. The infighting was really, truly over, they pledged.

The regents didn’t seem convinced.

Regent Dale Anderson said he’s pushed for better cooperation since joining the Board of Regents in 2012 but said he’s been met with resistance.

“I’m trying to remain calm, but I’m wondering where this new cooperative, collaborative—why all of the sudden is this in the forefront?” he asked. “There must of been a come to Jesus moment … I’m looking at this with a pretty jaundiced eye.”

Others seemed to agree though they stopped short of such harsh reads of the situation.

What seemed to undercut the chancellors’ newfound sense of cooperation was a report formulated by the UAA Faculty Senate that basically made the argument for the entirety of the $136 million in cuts to be focused on UAF.

“What may be best in the eyes of a particular university may not be best in the eyes of the state as a whole,” said Johnsen in arguing against the model. “You see it in social media, in reports from faculty groups and it’ll be predictable going forward.”

The skeleton of a plan

The details of the single University of Alaska will be worked out in the next month and a half in the lead up to the next Board of Regents meeting.

Johnsen said the plan isn’t to pursue a completely new accreditation for the system but to essentially fold universities and campuses into existing accreditations. From three institutional accreditations to a single accreditation and from 17 program accreditations to nine.

Courses would still be delivered at each of the three campuses—there’s no clear direction for what will happen to the community campuses. The availability of courses at each physical location would be reduced, but Johnsen said the goal would be to keep the maximum number of programs available.

With classes set to start next month, Johnsen said changes for the academic programs would begin in the spring semester of next year. The system would also have the duty to help students caught up in the middle of these programs to finish their degrees, which could happen through the retention of some faculty or offers to help students either complete courses by transferring or taking courses online.

He said the process of officially transferring the entire institution to a single accreditation could take a handful of months.

He batted away criticism that previous efforts to consolidate the system were shown to not make a meaningful dent on the budget, but he said the matter of a $136 million cut has changed the outlook. He also said the accreditation agency’s administration has changed and it’s more open to changes.

There’s no clear outlook for what will happen to the university’s athletic programs. Johnsen said under one plan, the entire system’s athletic programs could be consolidated down into the minimum of 10 teams system-wide. The logistics of such a change have not been thoroughly explored publicly.

The Board of Regents created a subcommittee that will serve as a sounding board for Johnsen during the next months. The full Board of Regents’ approval will be needed before any changes are implemented.

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1 Comment on "‘The house is on fire.’ Regents move ahead with consolidation of the University of Alaska"

  1. David Otness | July 31, 2019 at 5:12 am | Reply

    Way to go. Parnell’s (ConocoPhillips’) HB 110 that morphed into 2014’s SB 21 has truly come home to roost.
    How do you like it now, Legislators (Perps)?

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