The University of Alaska president is drawing up a plan to consolidate the state’s public university system – and fast. UA President Jim Johnsen says it’s a way to reduce spending in the face of a deep state funding cut this year.
So, what will overhauling the structure of the UA system actually look like?
Right now, there are still many unknowns. But it will likely mean fewer faculty, fewer administrators, consolidated programs and more classes online, according to Johnsen.
“We have to save the money, period,” he said in an interview Aug. 2.
Here’s what we know (and don’t know) so far about the path ahead.
But first, how did UA get to this point? Why consolidate now?
Currently, the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau each operate under their own institutional accreditations.
Johnsen is drafting a plan to consolidate the universities into one accredited institution that has multiple campuses in multiple locations.
UA leaders and state lawmakers have tossed around the idea of one accredited university for years. It was studied and advised against in 2016. But the budget situation is different now, Johnsen recently told the UA Board of Regents.
“Our house was not on fire then,” he said, “so we weren’t forced to look as seriously at looking at major structural change.”
UA has faced state funding cuts in recent years, he said, but never like this year – never so sudden and so deep.
Johnsen supports single accreditation. He said moving to a single UA will help reduce administrative costs and maximize the percent of funds spent on academics.
“If you look at each school as a silo, there are staff that they all need simply because of their separateness and separate accreditation,” Johnsen said. “By looking at single accreditation, I think we can consolidate a lot of administrative folks.”
[Readers’ questions helped shape this article. As the University of Alaska restructures, we want to continue hearing from readers. What do you want to know? Do you have ideas for coverage or stories? Tell us using this form.]
There’s been some recent political pressure too.
In this year’s state operating budget, the Legislature instructed regents to consider a plan to transition to single accreditation. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration also recently unveiled a controversial two-year funding proposal for UA that included consolidating its schools of engineering, business and arts and sciences.
On July 30, the UA Board of Regents discussed a few options for restructuring the university system, and ultimately decided in an 8-3 vote to task Johnsen with planning for single accreditation. Regents are expected to vote on the plan in September.
What’s the state funding situation for UA?
Right now, it’s complicated and engulfed in uncertainty.
On June 28, Dunleavy vetoed about $130 million in state funding for UA for the fiscal year that started three days later. That was on top of about a $5 million cut by the state Legislature.
In total, it’s a $135,384,200 cut to state funding for UA compared to last year. That’s an unprecedented 41% state funding cut. The cut also amounts to nearly 16% of UA’s total operating budget from the last fiscal year: $855.4 million.
(These two percentages have become highly politicized as Alaskans debate UA’s funding.)
What’s the budget uncertainty?
We’re now more than a month into the fiscal year and funding levels remain uncertain as a majority of Alaska legislators continue to try to reverse most of the Dunleavy’s vetoes to the state operating budget.
[In-depth reporting like this is made possible with support from our readers. Subscribe now.]
The Legislature has approved a bill that includes restoring $110 million in state funding for UA this year, leaving the university system with just a $25 million cut. Dunleavy now has to decide whether he’ll approve that money or veto some or all of it.
On top of that, Dunleavy’s administration has also pitched another proposal to UA: Take a nearly $133 million funding cut, but over two years and in specific areas. The proposal amounts to about a $95 million state funding cut in the current fiscal year and about a $38 million cut next year.
The proposal has attracted criticism for its targeted cuts. Regents have not voted on it.
Whatever the state funding level is, Johnsen said, the actual funding loss will be much greater once other costs including lost tuition and grants are factored in.
Why is the governor cutting UA funding?
Dunleavy vetoed a total of $444 million from this year’s state operating budget, including the $130 million for UA. He has repeatedly said it’s part of a two-year plan to balance the budget by cutting spending, avoiding new taxes and not reducing Permanent Fund dividend checks to residents.
A document from the governor’s office explaining the specific veto to UA also says the university system is too dependent on state funding and it has too many high-paid executives, too many duplicative programs and outcomes that are too poor. In its response, UA said the document is “incomplete, lacks context and draws misleading conclusions.”
(Dunleavy, a former educator, has other ties to the university system too. He got his master’s degree from UAF, has worked for UA and said he has two daughters taking classes at UA.)
OK, so what happens now?
Johnsen said he’ll be working on drafting a plan for a single University of Alaska with input from faculty, staff and students. There’s also a new regents’ subcommittee that’s supposed to serve as a “sounding board” during the process.
At the same time, university officials will be working on how to cut other costs, Johnsen said.
Classes start in a few weeks. What will change for students?
For the fall semester, the plan is to not interrupt degree programs, Johnsen said. Most reductions will first occur at the administrative level.
What about fall tuition?
Regents previously approved a 5% tuition increase for most students for the 2019-20 academic year.
As for spring semester, Johnsen said, tuition rates are still being considered.
He said he’ll “share some thoughts” on tuition costs at the regents’ September meeting and will bring forward a formal recommendation in November.
“There might be a bump,” he said. “It really depends on what happens with the budget process.”
OK, back to restructuring. What’s UA’s current structure?
The university system includes three separately accredited universities, each with its own chancellor: UAA, UAF and UAS.
There are also about a dozen community campuses that operate under one of the three university accreditations.
Then there’s the Fairbanks-based statewide administration. That includes Johnsen.
How would the structure change under single accreditation?
There would simply be a “University of Alaska” with campuses across the state, including in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, Johnsen said.
That likely means no more UAA, for example, but something like a “University of Alaska at Anchorage,” he said.
Also, expect the number of colleges and schools to decrease, as well as the number of administrative departments, Johnsen said.
The specifics are still being planned.
But here’s an example of what could happen, as presented by Johnsen on July 30:
If the HR departments are merged, the number of those departments would shrink from four to one. That would prompt the elimination of HR director jobs currently at UAA, UAF and UAS. The number of HR employees would also decrease from 56 to 44.
After the regents’ vote July 30, UA is also moving to immediately consolidate “back-office functional areas” such as IT, finance, university relations and procurement.
What does it mean to consolidate schools and colleges?
Instead of having 17 schools and colleges under the UA system, it’s possible there’d be just nine colleges under one UA.
Each of the colleges would be centered on one campus — it could be either Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau, Johnsen said. Classes would be offered in person at other locations depending on demand. If there isn’t enough demand, classes would be offered online, he said.
There would also be common curriculum, calendars, course blocks, applications and other processes across the university, Johnsen said.
Exactly how to reduce or consolidate academic programs is still being discussed, according to UA spokeswoman Robbie Graham.
Here’s a “prototype” of how consolidation could work in engineering, according to Johnsen’s presentation:
The UAA School of Engineering and UAF College of Engineering and Mines merge into the Alaska College of Engineering.
That leads to elimination of about 26 of 77 full-time instructional faculty. Class sizes increase. Administration decreases. (For instance, instead of two deans and two associate deans for academics, there’s one of each.) The number of majors remains the same.
How will UA officials decide where each college is located?
They’ll look at current enrollments and existing programs’ accreditations and offerings, Johnsen said.
“You want to build it on the one that has the greatest breadth,” he said. “What we’re really trying to do here is identify what are the most comprehensive colleges and units we already have.”
By Aug. 2, there had been no decisions about where each college would be located, he said.
How many degree programs will be eliminated?
Planning is ongoing, Johnsen said. The university is going to try to keep as many as possible, he said. It’ll be more about consolidation.
“We don’t need multiple programs in fill-in-the-blank field,” Johnsen said.
Are there still community campuses under single accreditation?
Yes, Johnsen said. He hoped all of the community campuses would remain.
Will there still be three chancellors?
“That’s uncertain at this time,” Johnsen said.
What about research?
Johnsen has said he believes the consolidation increases the opportunities for UA-wide collaboration on research.
“We’re going to do our damnedest to protect and invest in research,” he said.
Will more classes be offered online?
Yes, Johnsen said. A possible version of the new structure includes an Alaska eCollege as one of nine colleges.
Will there be one main campus?
Johnsen said UA will restructure under one of the university’s accreditations, likening it to the scaffolding for the new model. It’s not yet decided which one, he said.
Under a single accreditation and multiple locations, there needs to be a lead campus, according to Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the regional accrediting agency, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
When would the transition happen?
Regents will meet again Sept. 12-13 in Juneau.
Johnsen will present a plan for single accreditation, and they’ll vote on it, he said.
If regents approve it, changes start to roll out quick.
“We will quickly set up the colleges themselves,” Johnsen said. “It’s fast, no question.”
Programs will be designed, leadership identified and the number of faculty jobs established. This takes UA to early or mid-October, Johnsen said.
“At that point, we will be in a position to identify faculty and staff who will be staying with us,” he said.
Those who aren’t will likely have their jobs end on the last day of the current calendar year. For tenured faculty, that means lay off notices would go out at least 60 days before the end of 2019.
(That’s the shortened notice period under financial exigency. Regents voted last month to declare “financial exigency,” allowing them to more quickly cut costs in the face of a financial crisis.)
During the spring and summer, the transition to a single UA continues.
When will students find out about the future of their degree programs?
Likely by about October, Johnsen said.
What happens if a student’s college is slated to move to another campus?
The accrediting agency requires that UA provide every student caught up in the transition with a path out. (More on that below.)
How many administrators, faculty and staff could lose their jobs under consolidation? And when?
Johnsen said those numbers are still being determined. But a $135 million cut equates to roughly 1,350 jobs.
Some layoffs could start as soon as this month, he said.
How much money will consolidation actually save this year?
Johnsen said he expects the model to save money, and the amount is contingent on this year’s state funding level.
The real question, he said, is: “How much money must you save to survive the budget cut?”
“No matter what the number is, we have to hit it,” he said.
Under single accreditation, Johnsen’s recent presentation to regents showed about $43.4 million cut from academics, $13.4 million from student services, $11.9 from research, $5.8 million from public service and $60.8 million from administration and operations.
Wait. What about students’ scholarships, are those funded?
Yes, they will be.
The money for thousands of Alaska students’ state-funded college scholarships and educational grants wasn’t tied to Dunleavy’s veto. Instead, that funding had gotten caught up in a complicated money-shifting procedure called the “reverse sweep.” The Legislature recently passed a bill that fixed the issue and Dunleavy has said he won’t veto the funds.
Aside from consolidation, how else will UA cut costs?
UA is going to explore selling and leasing some buildings, Johnsen said. That includes possibly leasing or selling the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, he said. Outstanding debt on some property, including the airlines center, “adds a wrinkle to this,” he said.
“So it’s not a simple process of selling a building outright,” he said.
UA has also implemented a hiring freeze and put restrictions on purchasing and travel. Last month, about 2,500 UA employees found out they’ll have to take 10 days unpaid leave during the current fiscal year.
How does UA move to one accreditation?
It’s a complex process that will require UA to work closely with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s not going to happen overnight,” said the commission’s president, Sonny Ramaswamy.
“If they start the process now it might be a year from now before it’s completed,” he said.
The commission will require UA to submit detailed plans about how it will consolidate. Ramaswamy described it as “massive volumes of information” that must be turned over to the accrediting agency.
It will include information about every student who will be impacted by consolidation including how many more credit hours they need, and their individual path to complete their degree.
That established path could include anything from providing students with online courses to paying their tuition at another university, Ramaswamy said.
“You can imagine the complexity of this,” he said. “It’s easy for you to say you’re going to do such and such, but it’s pretty dang hard to actually track everything.”
He added: “Of course it can be done, but you have to spend quite a bit of time.”
Ramaswamy laid out the basic steps forward:
First, UA will have to submit the detailed plans — what the commission calls a “substantive change proposal,” he said. It could do this all at once or in parts.
A panel of higher education experts from across the country will vet the proposal. There may be on-site visits. If the panel approves of the proposal, it heads to the commissioners who will likely ask UA many questions. Then they’ll vote on the proposal.
Throughout the process, the commission is singularly focused on students, Ramaswamy said.
“What we’re going to be looking at very carefully is that the students’ interests are protected,” he said.
Why is this accreditation so important?
Universities pursue accreditation to have a neutral, third-party body certify that what they’re offering is credible. There are program-level accreditations and there’s institution-level accreditation, which covers the whole university. In some cases, accreditation is required.
In this case, institutional accreditation is at issue, and it’s critical.
Many employers and graduate schools require proof of graduation from an accredited institution. The U.S. Department of Education requires institutional accreditation for a school to be eligible for federal student aid. Accreditation is also important for students who want to transfer their courses and degrees and for faculty who want to receive grant funding or publish research.
Plus, losing accreditation is bad for a university’s reputation and can lead to the swift draining of students.
“Who would want to go to an institution that is not accredited?” Ramaswamy said.
Would single accreditation impact athletics?
Yes, it could result in a single athletic program instead of the current two. Johnsen said he believes under single accreditation there can be only one athletic program.
“Do all of those teams need to be in the same location?” he said. “We’re looking at that now.”
Currently there are 23 sports — 10 at UAF and 13 at UAA, according to Graham.
“In the short term, all programs will proceed as planned in 2019-20,” she said.
A long-term plan will be formulated in the coming weeks.
Johnsen and the athletic directors will have to address how many sports survive. Ten sports is the minimum requirement for NCAA Division II membership.
If athletics can only be hosted by one campus, how will UA choose?
“Off the top of my head – enrollment, tradition, philanthropic support, fan base, we’ll look at facilities available, we’ll look at conference factor. Those would be some of the variables,” Johnsen said.
Will there be a new mascot to replace the Nanooks of Fairbanks and the Seawolves of Anchorage?
The SeaNooks, Johnsen quipped as a compromise.
“It’s so funny — I guess it isn’t funny, it’s interesting — how important that question is,” Johnsen said. “You might think, ‘Who cares?’ but people get really wrapped around the axle on that.
It’ll be something we have to address.”
Does everyone support single accreditation?
“Faculty and students don’t agree with one accreditation. It feels like we’re being railroaded too early,” said Maria Williams, a professor of Alaska Native studies at UAA who chairs UA’s Faculty Alliance.
She fears UA is moving too quickly on a major transformation and it will risk losing accreditation.
“I think it will be an incredible challenge and a really heavy lift to do this in one year,” she said. “It’s going to be an extraordinarily rough ride.”
UAA, UAF and UAS chancellors all expressed concerns about single accreditation at the July 30 regents’ meeting. They advocated for a “consortium” model. They wanted the universities to retain their separate accreditations.
A student representative at the meeting also told regents that he had concerns about the impact the new structure could have on campuses’ distinct identities.
Williams said she worried single accreditation could lead to a sweeping standardization, inhibiting campuses’ abilities to respond to local communities and their workforce needs.
Has a consolidation like this happened in other states?
Other university systems have consolidated, according to higher education organizations.
To name a few: The University System of Georgia underwent a series of consolidations. Last year, an accreditation agency approved the University of Wisconsin System’s plan to merge 13 two-year campuses with seven four-year colleges. Also in 2018, Florida’s governor signed a bill requiring the University of South Florida System to consolidate its accreditations.
In Alaska, the distance between campuses and the remoteness of some locations sets UA apart, said David Tandberg, vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
Tandberg described UA’s restructuring as “one of the most dramatic that I’ve seen.”
ADN Sports Editor Beth Bragg contributed.