Facing backlash, UA Board of Regents seeks restructuring options beyond consolidation

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

With near-unanimous internal opposition heard at its public testimony session to the proposal to consolidate the University of Alaska’s three major campuses under a single, consolidated accreditation, the Board of Regents backed away from and revised an earlier motion on the issue.

At its meeting in Anchorage today, the Board of Regents voted unanimously to revise the July 30 motion that prompted the administration to explore plans for a single accreditation. The new resolution now prompts the administration to “prepare options for university structure for board consideration that includes single and multiple institution accreditation.”

The July 30 motion was passed when the University of Alaska was facing a $136 million cut as result of a massive vetoes handed down by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy. Those cuts were reduced to a $25 million cut in the current year with an additional $45 million in cuts over the next two years in an unusual agreement between Dunleavy and the Board of Regents.

The agreement allowed the university to step away from the brink, cancelling a declaration of financial exigency that would have allowed the university to completely overhaul its system essentially overnight.

There’s been a fair amount of division about where the university goes next and how quickly it should get there.

While legislative leadership has implored the Board of Regents to accelerate its decision-making, the university community of faculty, students and other staff have asked the Board of Regents to slow down its cuts and plans for reconfiguration.

The Board of Regents heard plenty of testimony on Thursday that implored them to change course away from consolidation, warning that it would erase the individual identity of each campus without a clear benefit to the overall system. Many seem to favor a consortium model where each campus would maintain its independent accreditations and make their own decisions about the budget cuts while attempting to better coordinate on their program offerings.

Some of the regents seemed surprised to see people think that consolidation was a done deal, and today’s changes are an effort to clarify that they’re still open to different outcomes.

The effort to revise the language was spearheaded by Regent Andy Teuber, who said the university community is looking for some sense of stability amid tumultuous changes.

“I do recognize that certain legislators within the Legislature have idealized a one-university model. … I think the intent is first the students. The students come first, and if the students are imploring us not to drive quickly to a one-university model or a single-accreditation model, we should be responsive and attentive to that,” he said. “We should be mindful of the timeframe we’re in. We just suffered the trauma of the risk of a $136 million cut. … Let us catch our breath for a moment and ensure that we’re not going to drive in a direction that will continue this trauma.”

Why it matters

Today’s actions are largely in service of clarifying the Board of Regents’ position that efforts to look into a consolidated single-accreditation system are just that: Efforts to look into it and not specifically a mandate for such a dramatic overhaul of Alaska’s higher education system.

Its impact in practice does not appear like it will be particularly dramatic. UA President Jim Johnsen, who’s been an advocate of a single-accreditation approach, said the current efforts were already exploring multiple different outcomes and he didn’t oppose the change to the resolution.

The move is an effort to settle much of the unrest within the University of Alaska system as faculty, staff and students have put up stiff opposition to the move to consolidate the university system. Much of the criticism focuses on the wide array of unknowns about what a consolidated system might look like, which programs might survive and where they would be located.

None of this is likely to sit well with the Alaska Legislature or the governor, both of which favor a single-university system and the potential savings they see in such an approach.

On Thursday, the Board of Regents recognized that they were stuck in a hard place between the university community they serve and the state politicians that set the university’s funding level.

Still, the Board of Regents are pushing ahead with the work necessary to make big changes to the University of Alaska. On Thursday, the regents approved a system-wide review of academic and non-academic programs for potential cutbacks, elimination or consolidation.

Updated resolution

The board removed the third bullet from this July 30 resolution, replacing it with the following language: “Prepare options for university structure for board consideration that includes single and multiple institutional accreditation.”

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