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Following pushback, University of Alaska regents vote to stop considering controversial merger — at least for now

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: 5 days ago
  • Published 6 days ago

The University of Alaska Board of Regents will no longer consider merging UA’s three separately accredited public universities into one accredited institution — at least for now.

Regents voted 9-2 at an emergency meeting Monday in Fairbanks to “cease consideration of a single accreditation” until the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ accreditation is reaffirmed in 2021, according to the approved motion, read by Regent Karen Perdue. Regents Dale Anderson and Mary Hughes cast the dissenting votes.

The regents’ decision followed a discussion with the accreditor of Alaska’s universities Monday morning and a nearly two-hour closed-door executive session. It marks a sharp shift for the regents during an especially turbulent year for the public university system.

UA Regents Chairman John Davies said the decision to step away from single accreditation was prompted by a recent cautionary letter from the accreditor that raised red flags about leadership roles and input in decisions, and feedback from university faculty, staff and students. Davies said regents heard from people who didn’t support merging the universities, were confused about the process, thought it was moving too fast and felt their voices had gone unheard.

“We want them to know we are hearing them and we are concerned about their concerns,” Davies said in an interview after the vote. “What we’re trying to do now is slow down this process.”

The UA system includes three separately accredited universities — the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Southeast — plus about a dozen community campuses and statewide administration, including UA President Jim Johnsen.

Originally faced with an unprecedented, $135 million state funding cut this year, regents in late July tasked Johnsen with drafting plans to move to one accredited university with multiple campuses. It was a controversial decision opposed by the chancellors and supported by Johnsen.

Then, Davies and Gov. Mike Dunleavy struck a deal, agreeing to a $25 million cut for UA this year and another $45 million cut over the next two years.

Under the smaller cut, regents voted to consider both one and multiple accreditations. Pushback continued and university governance groups passed a flurry of resolutions, culminating with Anchorage faculty reaffirming their vote of no confidence in Johnsen last week.

Davies underscored that the process to restructure was “initiated under extreme conditions,” referring to the initial 41% state funding cut.

In the future, he said, “I think we need to consider all of the options and we need to do it in a way that’s more systematic and has more data around it.”

According to Monday’s motion, as read by Perdue, if regents do decide to later pursue single accreditation, they will direct the UA president “by formal action to conduct an independent cost-benefit analysis and clearly examine accreditation issues at that time.”

For now, regents don’t want restructuring decisions interfering with UAF’s accreditation, Davies said.

The universities are accredited on a seven-year cycle by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. The accreditation is critical, and allows universities to receive federal student aid money. UAA and UAS had their accreditation reaffirmed by the agency earlier this year.

Also Monday, regents voted 9-1 to suspend fast-tracked academic reviews until they could consult further with chancellors and Johnsen on a way forward. Anderson opposed the motion.

The regents decided to meet again in late October to review a response to the accrediting agency’s letter. They’ll also hire a consultant on accreditation.

Davies said chancellors will each write their own response to the accreditor’s letter, and regents “aren’t going to edit those.”

Maria Williams, chair of the UA Faculty Alliance and a UAA professor, said she was pleased that regents had slowed down their decision on restructuring and that they had halted the fast-tracked reviews, which she described as disorganized and chaotic.

She said she remained concerned that regents didn’t pass a motion to stop consolidating administrative functions.

UA has also faced pressure from Dunleavy and legislators to consider single accreditation.

Davies said regents will work with the chancellors to prepare a report to lawmakers about the process it went through this year, including the “immediate pitfalls” they encountered.

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