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Some university faculty say accreditor’s letter validates their concerns; others say it’s too vague

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: October 2
  • Published October 1

Some Alaska faculty say their concerns are validated by a recent letter from the regional accrediting agency raising red flags about leadership roles and input in decisions within the University of Alaska system.

But others say the letter is too vague and clarification is needed.

The letter came from Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the accrediting agency for the region. It was sent to UA President Jim Johnsen, Regents Chairman John Davies and the three university chancellors on Thursday, and added a new layer of turbulence to an already chaotic year.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen and UA Board of Regents chairman John Davies speak with reporters during a press conference on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“It’s put fuel on the fire — the already existing unhappiness and even anger that faculty, staff and student voices aren’t being heard,” said Maria Williams, chair of the UA Faculty Alliance and a University of Alaska Anchorage professor.

Throughout Alaska’s university system, responses to the accreditor’s letter are unfurling this week as fall semester pushes into October and heated restructuring discussions continue for UA and its three universities in response to budget cuts.

In the letter, the accrediting agency said it’s concerned that UA’s three universities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau have failed to meet critical accreditation standards related to governance and who’s involved in decision making.

It’s rare for the accrediting agency to step in and issue warnings, Ramaswamy said in an interview. But he said he felt it necessary based on recent news reports and feedback from university employees and students.

Ramaswamy said students, faculty and staff have told the accrediting agency that their voices aren’t being heard during restructuring discussions. There’s also confusion about the three chancellors’ roles in those discussions and in the move toward centralizing certain university services, he said.

Ramaswamy described the warnings outlined in his two-page letter as fixable red flags.

The main message: “Provide some clarity, folks, and make it transparent,” he said. “Whatever the process you’re going to do, make it transparent, make it inclusive. That’s all it is, clarity, transparency, inclusivity.”

Ramaswamy’s letter — released by university officials Friday — sent waves of worry through the university community.

Accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities is critical. It allows universities to receive federal student aid money, and is key for students who want to transfer classes or for faculty who want grant funding.

Losing that accreditation is a severe blow to colleges and universities, and often a death knell.

(While UAA’s teacher preparation programs lost accreditation early this year, the accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities covers the entire university and the loss of it would have broader implications.)

The UA system includes three universities separately accredited by the commission: the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Southeast. There’s also about a dozen community campuses that operate under one of the three accreditations, plus the statewide administration that includes Johnsen.

Ramaswamy said his letter doesn’t imply accreditation is in jeopardy at UAA, UAF and UAS, but should serve as a reminder to regents and the administration that there are accreditation standards they must follow as they deal with budget cuts and structuring decisions.

“In moving forward, it is critical for stakeholders to understand who makes decisions and the rationale behind approaches that will be used to solve the current budget problem, who becomes involved, who implements those solutions, who evaluates them,” Ramaswamy said.

Ramaswamy’s letter prompted a joint statement Friday from Davies, Johnsen and the three chancellors underscoring they were working with the accrediting agency and will take no action to jeopardize accreditation.

They emphasized that the agency raised no concerns about the quality of Alaska’s academic or research programs — UAA and UAS had their accreditation reaffirmed by the agency this year, and UAF is currently in the process.

Accreditation is a complicated process with wide-ranging standards that address everything from academics to governance to infrastructure.

In an interview Monday, Johnsen said he needed clarity from the accreditor about its concerns.

“We are taking them very seriously, but they need to be clarified with the commission here as soon as possible,” he said.

Johnsen said UA’s governance structure hasn’t changed, and he believes there is an inclusive decision-making process already in place.

There has been additional time for public testimony, workshops, a survey and review teams with faculty, staff and students, he said.

“Those are just four examples in the past 60 days,” he said.

Johnsen said he didn’t understand if by “inclusive,” the agency actually means buy-in or agreement from faculty, staff, administrators and students.

There hasn’t been agreement about how UA should handle shrinking state funding, some of the discussions leading to infighting.

The university system was launched into a tailspin in late June after Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $130 million in state funding for UA for the fiscal year that started three days later. UA officials described the cut as disastrous and draconian, and the regents declared financial exigency, preparing for quick, sweeping faculty layoffs.

Johnsen also proposed merging UAA, UAF and UAS into a single university with multiple campuses as a way to save money. Regents voted to move toward that consolidation.

The decisions unfolded quickly, and amid opposition. UAA, UAF and UAS chancellors opposed consolidation, advocating for the universities to stay separate and to handle the cuts locally. Faculty groups also protested the merger, calling for an analysis of its costs.

Then Davies and Dunleavy struck a controversial deal in mid-August: a $25 million state funding cut for UA this year, followed by another $45 million reduction over the next two years.

Regents canceled their declaration of financial exigency. Following outcry from university students and employees, they also said they’d consider both single- and multiple-accreditation options.

From left, University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Daniel White, UA Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen and UA Southeast Chancellor Rick Caulfield speak at a UA Board of Regents meeting, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in Anchorage. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)

UAA Faculty Senate President Scott Downing said the accreditor’s letter validated faculty’s long-held concerns that Johnsen is making unilateral decisions, and sidelining the input of chancellors, faculty, staff and students.

He pointed to a report from KTUU last week that included an Aug. 1 memo from Johnsen to chancellors after the regents voted to move toward single accreditation. He asked chancellors to alert him if they couldn’t support the board’s directives “so that we may arrange for a smooth transition,” according to the memo.

“To see a president squelch dissent is very concerning,” Downing said.

Johnsen countered that he regularly meets with chancellors and they can speak directly to the board of regents.

“I’m not muzzling anybody, but there is a professional expectation that an officer of an organization is going to support the direction of the organization,” he said. “That is a standard and very reasonable expectation.”

UA is continuing with fast-tracked system-wide reviews of programs, from athletics to engineering, to inform decisions about the system’s future structure.

But concerns remain that the review teams don’t include enough faculty and students, according to faculty and student representatives.

“In times like these, we need more input,” said Teresa Wrobel, UAA student and vice chair of the UA Coalition of Student Leaders.

UAF Faculty Senate President Sine Anahita said she needed more information about what standards the universities failed to meet before she could respond to the letter. She said she felt there were many recent opportunities for input, and ultimately the university system is a hierarchy.

Also, she said, Johnsen’s memo to chancellors in August came as universities were preparing to shut down campuses and cut hundreds of jobs in response to a deep budget cut.

“It was a wartime, battle-plan decision,” she said.

But UAF Faculty Senate President-elect Julie Maier said she’s talked to more faculty who are concerned, but pleased by the accreditor’s letter, and hoping it yields more voices in decisions.

“We’ve been on our knees begging for shared governance,” she said.

The UA Faculty Alliance passed a resolution Monday asking regents to put a moratorium on the program reviews until the administration can ensure there’s a decision-making process that takes into account employees’ and students’ views, in line with the accreditation standards.

Regents Chairman Davies said the board has heard the concerns from faculty, staff and students, and will discuss how to have a constructive conversation about budget cuts and university structure moving forward.

Regents are also in a precarious spot, he said: There is a three-year, $70 million cut to deal with, and pressure from state lawmakers to at least consider consolidating to a single UA.

Ramaswamy has tasked UAA, UAF and UAS to report to the accrediting agency by Oct. 31 about their progress addressing the accreditor’s concerns, including that leadership roles are clear and decisions involve the views of university students and employees.

Davies had said earlier he hoped to have an emergency regents meeting Wednesday about the accreditor’s letter, but the meeting has been postponed until regents can talk in person. A date had not been set by Tuesday.

Ramaswamy said the accrediting agency has no position on whether UA should consolidate or not.

His advice: “Please folks, take a deep breath, fix this, address those red flags and get back to the business of understanding how this budget situation is going to be dealt with.”

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