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Fates of dozens of academic programs and proposed campus merger go to University of Alaska regents

Buildings on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage, photographed Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Next week, the University of Alaska Board of Regents will decide whether to cut more than 40 academic programs and to implement structural changes that could result in the merger of the University of Alaska Southeast with one of the system’s other two universities.

The consideration of “options for university transformation” — including a possible merger — is part of an effort to stave off a $14 million to $40 million financial deficit that would hit the university system in fiscal year 2022, according to a May 13 presentation to the board of regents’ audit committee by UA President Jim Johnsen.

“The outlook is extremely dire,” regent Mary Hughes said after the presentation. “For those of us who are used to the private sector, this is a playbook for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.”

The program cuts and possible merger mark a turning point for the university system, which until now had protected its core academic programs and its by-region campus structure. But it has faced decreased student enrollment and state funding cuts over the last several years.

The predicted shortfall in fiscal year 2022 is likely despite a process already set in motion to trim the system’s administrative budgets and academic programs, after UA agreed to a $70 million cut in state funding spread over three years.

Next week, the board of regents will meet to decide whether to cut programs from the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Southeast. It will consider a controversial option to merge UAS with UAA or UAF. Also under consideration is an option to merge all 13 community campuses with UAS. No information is currently publicly available explaining how much money any merger option saves or if more academic programs or campuses would be closed.

On Tuesday, the board heard two hours of public testimony, largely filled with outcry against a merger of UAS with another university. Southeast Alaska residents expressed various concerns about losing local educational resources.

‘Heartbreaking’ decisions on program cuts at UAA

The more than 10 programs up for being cut at UAA have been slated for review since March; they include eliminating Alaska’s only undergraduate degrees in theater and sociology.

“These decisions are extremely difficult and in many cases heartbreaking,” UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen wrote in a letter recommending the program cuts to Johnsen in March.

Many in the university feel that some of the programs chosen for deletion are vital, and argue that any cost savings from cutting them is minimal compared to the impact on students.

The UAA faculty senate has passed resolutions opposing the deletion of seven programs, saying that the program reviews were rushed and that “the recommendations were not well-founded and the outcomes have been rubber stamped from one level to the next without meaningful consideration of the facts.”

During Tuesday night’s public testimony, Libby Roderick, associate director of the Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence, said UAA’s interdisciplinary environment and society degree is a “pipeline to high paying jobs” for Alaskans and should not be cut.

Cutting the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program would save the university about $60,000, but it is the only program like it in the state and has produced nationally recognized authors, said Joel Potter, assistant professor of philosophy at UAA.

“If you cut these programs, if you assume all of those students would continue to go to UAA and just enroll in something else — that’s a very problematic assumption,” Potter said.

What would a merger mean?

The university system includes three separately accredited universities and 13 community campuses and learning centers run under one of the three university accreditations.

Last year, the board nixed a possible merger of all the universities into a single entity under one accreditation after concerns with accreditation were brought to light. In October, the board voted to cease considering a single-university system until UAF’s accreditation is reaffirmed in 2021.

But continuing with systemwide “pro-rata” cuts — trimming proportionally across the universities — is no longer a feasible option, Johnsen said during the May 13 meeting.

“The board has to prepare themselves for extreme measures get to these extreme numbers,” regent Sheri Buretta said of the deficit.

But if UAS is swallowed in a merger, it could be “devastating” to Southeast Alaska, said Sol Neely, an associate professor of English at UAS.

"It would have long-term repercussions on both our economy and state university system that will be impossible to anticipate,” Neely said.

What’s next?

The board will hear public testimony again next Tuesday before its meetings on Thursday and Friday.

The transformation options, including any merger, are currently under a preliminary review process.

In a letter to the university, Johnsen said that he does not plan to recommend any one option but will “present the results of preliminary reviews and take direction from the Board on any further consideration.”

It is not yet clear whether the board will vote to implement any of the merger options at the meeting next week. According to university spokeswoman Roberta Graham, the meeting could go any of three ways: The board may ask the university leadership to keep working out specific details of the options. It may adopt some of the options while setting aside others. Or it might make a final decision.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated associate professor Sol Neely’s title.

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