UA Regents fast-track review of academic programs amid public backlash to consolidation

Hooding Ceremony at Wendy Williamson Saturday, May 4, 2013. (Photo by Erin Hooley/University of Alaska Anchorage Office of Advancement/Creative Commons)

The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents heard near-unanimous opposition to the proposed plan to deal with the multimillion-dollar cuts looming over the state’s university system on Thursday but ultimately approved an accelerated review of the system’s academic programs.

The regents voted 9-2 to launch a systemwide academic program review as the first major step toward consolidating the University of Alaska, which will lead to the potential consolidation, elimination or overhaul of the academic offerings at each campus.

The University of Alaska is staring down the barrel of a $70 million cut in state funding under and agreement with Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy, $25 million of which was cut this year. The $70 million cut over three years is a reversal from the governor’s initial position of a $136 million one-year cut to the system.

It’s left division about what to do next.

Many students and faculty testified to the regents asking for them to slow down the process now that the cuts are, in their eyes, more manageable. But pressure for quick decisions is still high with legislative leadership penning a letter to the Board of Regents that essentially says, “Hurry up.”

A survey prepared by the university painted a conflicted picture of how the university community feels about the prospects of consolidation. Officials said they believed many of the supporters of consolidation were afraid to speak publicly about the issue for fear of retribution. Opponents to consolidation questioned the validity of the survey.

The regents have backed away from a declaration of financial exigency, which would have allowed the university to make massive cuts to faculty and academic programs essentially overnight. The newly approved academic review, which more or less follows the normal review process, would result in program changes by the end of 2020.

The regents acknowledged the opposition from within the system, but said they’re feeling pressure from both sides and it’s ultimately the Legislature and the governor that determine the state support for UA.

“The business community and people that are not intimately involved with the university are like, ‘Get on with it.’ The people who are living and breathing the university are feeling that these are very, very important and complex decisions,” said Regent Karen Perdue during a presentation of a survey that highlighted the opposing viewpoints. “It’s the world that the regents are living in. It’s split world.”

Other regents said they felt the university had been unified in the face of world-changing cuts proposed by Dunleavy but have since fallen back into old ruts of infighting now that the immediate threat has been eased.

UA President Jim Johnsen, one of the key supporters of a consolidated university system, told the regents that he still believes that time is of the essence for the university to respond to the cuts. The longer the university waits to make cuts, he said, the larger they will need to be.

“The decisions, no question, will be difficult and the choices will not be clear-cut. As is the nature of all such decisions, while we strive to listen to all the voices, not everyone’s going to feel heard. While we’ll use the best data we have … we will not have all the data we need to satisfy everyone. While we’ll communicate openly, not everyone will be satisfied with what has been shared,” he said. “While we’re taking time to evaluate the options, we will not have the time that we want. We will strive for perfection, but none of this is perfect and there will be mistakes.”

The regents ultimately eased off the gas a little bit with its final resolution of the program review.

While the original resolution had sought to review all programs and present the Board of Regents with decisions at its November meeting, the board amended it to give some programs a bit of leeway. Under the amended resolution, a program review could be delayed to the spring if Johnsen and the chancellors believe there’s more time needed for a program review.

Johnsen noted that some programs, like the engineering programs at the University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Fairbanks, have already begun the process of exploring what a slimmed-down and consolidated program might look like.

He said there’ll be benefits for programs that start and complete their review earlier because they will reach certainty—even if it means cuts—sooner rather than later. He also said that the scale of the cuts will be smaller for programs that go through the review earlier rather than later.

Consolidation not a done deal

The testimony from the university community was critical of both the speed and direction of the Board of Regents’ actions.

With the speed, they worried about the opportunities for the community to be involved and informed in the decisions ahead. Teresa Wrobel, the vice chair of the Coalition of Student Leaders, told the regents that there need to be more positions for students on the review boards and said that it’d be helpful if the kind of information distributed to students was easier to understand.

When it comes to the direction of the decision-making, there seemed to be little remedy.

The Board of Regents is pushing ahead with a plan to consider consolidating the University of Alaska’s three main campuses under a single accreditation that would focus each campus into its strengths while removing duplication of degree programs. Many students and faculty opposed this idea, pushing instead for a consortium approach where campuses would remain separate but be encouraged to cooperate more.

Regents have been skeptical of the consortium model, wary about the universities’ ability to work together given a long history of competition and infighting.

Though the regents have approved actions allowing Johnsen to begin pursuing a single accreditation approach, many regents on Thursday reiterated that it’s not a done decision.

Regent Gloria O’Neill said it currently seems like everyone’s on opposite ends of the spectrum but predicted that the final decision will be somewhere in the middle.

The regents resume work today. The main item on the agenda is approving an updated budget that takes into account the $25 million cut to state funding. Those cuts have largely been driven by the individual campuses, which many opponents of consolidation say is evidence in support of the consortium model.

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