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University of Alaska regents vote to move ahead with program reviews

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 13, 2019
  • Published September 12, 2019

University of Alaska regents voted on Thursday to move ahead with expedited reviews of programs, but under a slightly more flexible timeline, before deciding how to best structure the public university system.

“It gets us moving forward, and we’ve got to keep that momentum,” said UA President Jim Johnsen.

It’s the latest regents’ decision after a chaotic summer for the state’s public university system. Thursday’s full board meeting was the regents’ first since they canceled their declaration of financial exigency last month, after Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s sharp reversal on funding for his alma mater.

Dunleavy had originally supported an unprecedented $135 million, one-year cut for UA, launching the university system into turmoil. Several weeks later, the governor agreed to reduce the cut to $25 million for the current fiscal year that started July 1.

Dunleavy has indicated there are more budget cuts coming: He and UA regents chairman John Davies signed a controversial compact last month that said the governor would support another $25 million cut for UA next year and a $20 million cut the year after that. That’s on top of state funding cuts in four of the past five years for the university system.

Now, UA needs to determine how to deal with the budget cuts and how it should be structured under the reduced state funding levels, Davies said.

In a 9-2 vote, the regents on Thursday tasked Johnsen to work with chancellors to form teams of people from across UA. The teams will determine how to “best integrate, reduce or discontinue” 13 units and programs from engineering to athletics to libraries, said the approved motion.

Johnsen had proposed that the teams ready their reports in time for the regents’ next meeting, on Nov. 7. The regents softened that directive: They instructed Johnsen to work with the teams to determine which areas might require more time.

“It’s days and weeks, not months,” said Regent Mary Hughes.

Regents John Bania and Cachet Garrett voted against the review process for opposite reasons. Garrett said the teams needed more time, while Bania said they needed “to get things done.”

“Yes, the timeline is short, but nevertheless, it’s time to take care of business here,” he said.

Davies said the tweaked timeline reflects feedback from faculty, staff, students and other community members who said UA was moving too fast.

He said the reviews would allow more time for input to inform regents’ decisions. They’re also a required step before any programs are cut and faculty laid off, he said.

The regents’ vote capped a more than eight-hour meeting.

About 30 people testified at the start of the meeting, most of them advocating against merging the state’s three public universities into one UA with classes offered across the state.

Attendees watch the UAA Board of Regents meeting at UAA's Gorsuch Commons on September 12, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

“My personal opinion is that consolidation is not good for the communities and there are alternatives that should be explored given the breathing room that you have,” Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz told regents.

Faculty and students also said they wanted to be more involved in decisions and need more information. Some said they were scared. Some angry.

Regent Dale Anderson said he also had “a lot of emails” from people who support consolidating the UA system, “but they’re afraid to come up here and talk because of retribution.”

People on the other side are scared to come forward too, said Regent Lisa Parker.

Regents also reviewed a survey Thursday, which had nearly 4,000 responses. Among the findings, 50% of people said it’s important for each campus to have its unique identity and 52% said it’s important that all “higher education operate as a single, integrated system with programs and courses available at campuses statewide.”

The UA system currently includes three separately accredited universities: the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. There are also 13 community campuses and the Fairbanks-based statewide administration.

Johnsen said the teams reviewing the programs and units will answer questions including what degree programs would look like under a single college or school, and how much money that could save.

“We have been wrestling with the dilemma of one or three for years, probably since 1975 that dilemma has been on the regents’ plate,” Johnsen said.

The regents face some political pressure too: The Legislature and the governor have instructed them to consider a plan to transition to single accreditation.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the specifics of what a single UA would look like. Johnsen has said classes would continue to be offered across the state under that model.

It’s also not clear when regents will decide on a structure for UA. A vote was expected in November, but the altered timeline could push that off further.

The regents will again meet in Anchorage Friday to discuss the budget and tuition.