The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted today to approve a plan to review and research options for the future of the Juneau-based University of Alaska Southeast, calling for the involvement of students, faculty and community leaders.
The regents voted 7-4 to approve what they called a due diligence process to consider new options for UAS, including potentially merging it with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as the entire University of Alaska system grapples with a steep decline in state funding and dropping enrollment amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the motion, a conceptual plan would be due back to the Board of Regents by Oct. 15.
The direction asks the working group to not just consider folding UAS into another university, as had been initially proposed, but to consider other options such as “opportunities for expansion in such areas as fishers and ocean science, Alaska Native programs, environmental research, public administration, mine training and teacher education.”
The motion was made by Regent Dale Anderson, from Juneau, who said it’s the Board of Regents’ duty to get the University of Alaska system onto sound financial footing.
“Let’s have a roundtable conversation, share ideas, gather thoughts and data, look for efficiencies and opportunities with a positive outlook,” he said. “Using stakeholders from the university, the regional communities that are affected, tribal organizations and Alaskans dedicated to the betterment of our state and university. … I ask that we simply take a look at this proposed merger, not necessarily move forward with it. I’m asking for an opportunity to gather data, examine ideas and opportunities, explore potential efficiencies and study the pros and cons before we make a decision to merge or not and not just throw it out the window without the data.”
Merging UAS into another campus has been deeply opposed by faculty, students and community leaders in the area, several of whom testified to the Board of Regents earlier in the week. They argued that it was a hasty plan that would decimate higher education in Southeast Alaska that may not even generate as much savings as estimated.
Anderson said that much of that has been driven by misinformation and “naysayers,” arguing that a positive engagement in the process could yield a better outcome for everyone.
The four regents that opposed the motion offered different reasons.
Regent Darroll Hargraves said he didn’t think the merger was going to happen because of political opposition and said it’s better than the process just be put to rest now so they can start considering other options. Regent Lisa Parker said the process didn’t allow for enough time to really study the process. Regent Cachet Garrett opposed it calling it “outrageous.” Regent Andy Teuber also voted against the motion and had proposed tabling it indefinitely.
Regents who supported the motion were cool on the plan, noting that it’s likely unrealistic that merging UAS into another university would save the $15 million to $16 million of initial estimates. Instead, they focused on the potential for new opportunities at the Southeast Alaska campus.
“It’s been very poorly rolled out. I want to apologize on the part of the university for the way this has been rolled out. I think there is a need for bachelor’s and master’s education in Southeast and workforce training,” said Regent Karen Perdue on the process, later adding that the process ahead will determine the outcome. “I do say if it’s going to be viewed in a hostile way it’s not going to be very productive, and we’ll know that very soon, but I do think that if we say, ‘Have we done everything, have we turned over every rock in this new environment,’ the answer is probably no and it would be good to take the time to look at this.”
Still other regents felt that they needed to take concrete steps toward some kind of action, noting the Board of Regent’s tendency to shy away from pulling the trigger on any sort of plan, particularly when it runs up against backlash from the university community.
“The regents are very good about postponing decisions and now the time has come because we are in an extremely difficult financial circumstance,” said Regent Mary K. Hughes, who’s served on the board since 2002, noting that UA is expected to deplete its savings to cover the anticipated budget deficits.
Regent Dale Bania agreed.
“I’ve been on the board for about 18 months and I’m about to go crazy because we can’t make a decision,” he said.
Bania, Hughes, Perdue and Anderson were joined by Regents Sheri Buretta, John Davies and Gloria O’Neill in supporting the motion. Parker, Hargraves, Teuber and Garrett voted against it.
After the vote, the Board of Regents went into an executive session to discuss the looming departure of UA President Jim Johnsen, who was named the sole finalist to oversee the University of Wisconsin system. Buretta said they’ll likely appoint an interim president and launch a search for a new president “when the time is right.”