Funding boom over, UAA moves to rank, and potentially cull, programs

Michelle Theriault Boots

At the University of Alaska Anchorage, it's possible to earn a bachelor's degree in Russian, a certificate in massage therapy and a master's degree in global supply-chain management. The school, which serves about 15,000 students in Anchorage, confers everything from a minor in Canadian studies to an occupational endorsement in "automotive engine performance."

Faced with declining funding from the state, UAA is doing an unprecedented, institution-wide examination of its sprawling offerings.

The soul-searching is called "prioritization." Not everyone is enthusiastic about the prospect.

During the course of this school year, every program at UAA will be analyzed by a faculty-led group and then sorted into five competitive, equally-sized ranking groups. The top ranked will be first in line for funding. The lowest ranked could face elimination. The rankings will be public.

Some faculty members are in open rebellion. One professor, in an email to faculty members, compared the project to "The Hunger Games," a dystopian book series in which teenagers are forced to fight against each other to the death.

Administrators say to keep up with Alaska's workforce needs. UAA, which is the largest institution of higher education in the state by student enrollment, must take a long, hard look at where its money is going.

The school has never audited itself on this scale before, said vice chancellor of university relations Kristin DeSmith.

"Everything is getting looked at," DeSmith said.

UAA enjoyed a decade long, legislature-funded boom starting around 2001, vice chancellor for administrative services Bill Spindle told an audience of faculty and staff at a forum on prioritization held in early October.

During that time, UAA expanded with new programs ranging from a Confucius Institute devoted to studying Chinese language and culture to in-demand engineering and health care schools.

The state funds that helped finance that expansion are drying up, Spindle told the forum.

Right now, the state provides $1.30 for every dollar UAA gets from another source, he said. The state wants to go to a dollar-to-dollar ratio.

"We have already received guidance from the State that operations funding for the university will likely decline in the next fiscal year," the university wrote in a letter about prioritization posted on its website.

The University of Alaska system's budget projection for the 2015 fiscal year is $30 million less than this year, the Juneau Empire reported in September.

UAA isn't in a financial crisis yet, administrators say. It just needs to make tougher decisions about which programs to feed. "We don't have the resources to continue the growth spurt we have had," Spindle said.

Outlying campuses in Mat-Su, Prince William Sound, Kenai and Kodiak aren't participating. Either is the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the flagship campus of the system.

"Prioritization" is the brainchild of a higher education consultant named Robert Dickeson.

Other universities around the country and in Canada have tried Dickeson's method. Most have been in dire financial straits and have needed to make big cuts quickly.

During prioritization, which is now in early stages, program representatives will write reports covering topics such as "impact and essentiality," "size, scope and productivity," and "revenue and resources generated," among other factors. Faculty-led committees analyze programs and rank them into groups.

Non-academic parts of the university, such as athletics, fundraising and even food service will get the same scrutiny from a panel composed of staff members.

No expenditure will go unscrutinized, down to whether it's worthwhile to raise flowers in the greenhouse and plant them around campus in the spring.

UAA's wide-ranging offerings are a reflection of its dual roles as a community and technical college and a research university.

Some faculty members have expressed fear the results of prioritization will tip the balance away from traditional liberal arts disciplines like art and language in favor of technical and trade programs, some of which are already among the university's most sought after.

April was originally set a date when rankings would be compiled, but the timeline is squishy, said DeSmith.

"We want to do the process right," she said.

At the early October meeting, faculty members said they were worried about the stigma a low ranking could attach to a program.

Others invoked the "nightmare scenario" in which the legislature would look at low-ranked programs as proof more could be cut from the school's budget.

Professor Nalinaksha Bhattacharyya, who teaches finance at UAA's College of Business and Public Policy, sees the exercise as an end-run around tenure, in which comparatively expensive tenured positions would be eliminated in favor of lower-paid temporary adjunct instructors, with the rankings used as justification.

"The only purpose of this model is to attack tenure," he said. "Nothing else."

Bhattacharyya was the author of the "Hunger Games" email. He said he loves working at the university and wants to keep it a collegial place.

He believes the prioritization model "essentially pits physics against philosophy against psychology, and so on," to the detriment of all.

"The idea of 'If I live, you have to die,' " he said, "is not the basis for any civil society."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.