Amid infighting, University of Alaska gets warning about campus accreditation

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

The University of Alaska received warning last week that its handling of leadership duties and its hearing of faculty and student concerns could put the system’s accreditation at risk.

The letter came from the Sonny Ramaswamy, the president of the Northwest Commission on Collections and Universities, outlining concerns from a NWCCU official’s visit to the University of Alaska Fairbanks early last week.

“Today I write based on NWCCU Senior Vice President Mac Powell’s on-the-ground observations developed during the last several days of interactions with the myriad stakeholders in Fairbanks and concerns related to the governance of the state’s independently accredited institutions,” explains the letter.

The visit comes as leadership is pushing for an overhaul of the university system in light of budget cuts handed down by Republican Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy. Though the university has softened on its approach, its proposal to consolidate the state’s three universities under a single accreditation has stoked vocal opposition from some faculty and students.

The Board of Regents, which has ultimate authority over the university’s direction, has made efforts to slow the process but argues that the financial reality will force change. Still, it’s created an atmosphere of infighting between leadership and faculty as well as confusion about the direction of the system and the decisions being made.

The letter seems to recognize the lay of the land. The letter reminds the university that accreditation standards require “an effective and widely understood system of governance with clearly defined authority, roles and responsibilities.” It also requires that within major decision-making processes that hears the views of faculty, staff, administrators and students “on matters in which they have a direct and reasonable interest.”

The letter says that based on Powell’s campus visit and “in reviewing recent media coverage” that the NWCUU is concerned the University of Alaska is falling short on both issues, which could put the accreditation of the campuses in jeopardy.

No mention of academic program quality is made in the letter.

To remedy the problems, the NWCUU lays out two main requests, which are as follows:

  • “We respectfully urge you to take immediate steps to provide clarity around the authority, roles, and responsibilities of the University of Alaska System and its respective institutions and their leadership.
  • “We also respectfully urge you to continue to create a space for inclusive dialogue as the board of Regents deliberates on the future structure of the University of Alaska System.”

The NWCCU letter recognizes that the decision-making power ultimately rests with the Board of Regents but says that it must improve its handling of input. It asks that the university report back with a report on how it has handled the concerns by Oct. 31.

The NWCCU letter also mentions “reviewing recent media coverage,” which is most likely a reference to KTUU’s report last week about how Johnsen has locked down communications by chancellors in light of the budget and consolidation efforts. That report called into question the independence of the chancellors to oversee and advocate for their campuses.

The University of Alaska response was released Friday afternoon and was penned by Board of Regents Chair John Davies and University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen along with the chancellors of the three campuses.

The letter acknowledges that changes have been made since the initial threat of a one-year $136 million cut was softened to a $70 million cut over three years, explaining that it’s backed away from a single-minded pursuit of a consolidated university and has slowed down its consideration of academic program reviews as part of its cost-cutting efforts.

“While this process was designed to meet accreditation requirements as well as fiscal realities, the board, the president and the chancellors are working together to ensure that this process meets NWCCU accreditation standards, making adjustments as needed,” explains the letter. “The Board will receive a report from the president and the chancellors on those reviews in November and, depending on the recommendations, may determine that additional time is needed in order to ensure that improvements can be made while accreditation is maintained.”

Why it matters

The news that the University of Alaska system is facing accreditation concerns comes after UA President Johnsen downplayed the risks of lost accreditation through consolidation and budget cuts. Though the latest letter is more focused on the leadership structure and public input than it is about the decisions themselves, the latest headlines are a blow to Johnsen’s position that accreditation is safe.

Diving into the content of the letter paints a more complicated picture about the status of the University of Alaska’s accreditation. The university’s response is right to point out that the NWCCU letter doesn’t specifically raise concerns about the quality of the system’s academic programs, which is what most of us think when we think about accreditation.

Instead, the letter highlights the importance of clearly delineated roles and responsibilities between the University of Alaska statewide offices and the three independently accredited campuses. It also calls for more inclusive input from faculty and students in the governance of the UA system.

Both of these are very real issues facing the university as it considers an overhaul in response to the budget cuts handed down by the governor. Regents and leadership feel the outside political pressure to make changes while faculty and students see changes that could eliminate degree programs and alter the character of each campus.

NWCCU’s letter seems to side with faculty and students in this process. At the very least, the letter shows the importance of bringing faculty and students along with the decisions. If those groups feel like they’re not part of the process, then that alone could be cause for concern.

Correcting course from these problems will take time and expanded outreach, which the regents took some efforts to address during their latest meeting. Whether it’s ultimately enough is still yet to be seen.

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