Legislature’s latest call for a consolidated UA has been rejected by regents once again

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

As far as fanciful thinking goes, legislators’ long-held dream of a consolidated University of Alaska system as a solution for all the problems facing higher education in Alaska ranks right up there with legislators’ adamant claims that the state’s tough budget decisions can be painlessly solved with a detail-free “just increase efficiencies.”

The Legislature’s budget frequently includes non-binding intent language requesting the University of Alaska system—which is run independent from the Legislature save for the funding level—consider consolidation. This year’s budget was no different, asking for a report due by Dec. 1, 2019.

It is the intent of the legislature that the Board of Regents consider a plan to transition the University of Alaska from three separately accredited academic institutions into a single accredited institution with multiple community campuses, and that the Board of Regents provide an update to the legislature on the development of such a plan by December 1, 2019.House Bill 39, 2019

The Alaska Legislative Finance Division received a response back form Board of Regents Chair Sheri Buretta before Thanksgiving, informing the Legislature that after consideration—which nearly led to a revolt of university faculty and professors—that it would not be moving ahead with consolation at this time.

The two-page letter lays out a summer of activity (glazing over the near revolt) of reviewing consolidation and restructuring.

The talk of consolidation ran up against stiff opposition from the university community, which prompted the accrediting agency Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities to raise its own alarms about how the process was being handled.

The Board of Regents, which is solely responsible for the University of Alaska is run, ultimately shelved the consolidation talk until 2021 when the campus accreditations for the University of Alaska Fairbanks is set to be renewed.

Buretta wrote that other efforts are being undertaken to address the university system’s troubles. Most notably, she highlighted the academic program review is still underway. The review was one of the first major steps toward consolidation and was kept alive even when the consolidation was shelved.

“The Board is still aggressively pursuing other means to reduce costs and increase efficiency, including consolidation of administrative functions across the system, clarification of roles and responsibilities between the BOR and the universities, and expedited academic program reviews at each of our universities in preparation for BOR decisions regarding program reduction, consolidation and elimination,” she wrote.

She said the reviews should be back in front of the regents this spring and that they could serve as the groundwork for a future consolidation effort, but any consideration will be driven by an independent analysis of the numbers.

“If the BOR chooses to actively consider single accreditation in the future, it will direct the president by formal action to do so and will include that direction the requirement of an independent cost benefit analysis,” she added.

That’s critical because the University of Alaska never quite reached into the specifics of what consolidation would look like, how much it would cost and what it might mean for specific academic programs. Whether it would actually save money was never fully answered.

The effort also never directly addressed a 2016 report that did look into the numbers and found “single accreditation is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve cost savings, enhance the student experience or improve state higher education performance measures.”

Why it matters

This year posed the best chance so far at consolidation. University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen has been a fan of the idea, particularly as a way to bring about better cooperation between the often at-odds campuses, and the devastating cuts put forward by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy meant something needed to be done.

There was more support than ever from legislators supportive of the idea, too, and the Board of Regents received a letter penned by House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and Senate President Cathy Giessel that essentially urged the Regents to continue with consolidation even though the $135 million one-year cut made by Dunleavy was later softened to a $70 million cut doled out over three years.

“We applaud the rigor and seriousness with which you have consistently addressed those concerns, whether through Strategic Pathways or other reform initiatives,” explained the letter. “However, given the gravity of current circumstances, we are left with no other choice but to suggest that the current pace of change needs to be accelerated.”

Though many elements of consolidation are still alive through the academic program review, it’s yet to be seen how the Legislature will react come budget time.

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