Alaska should never have destroyed its statewide community college system a quarter-century ago, a move that's still impeding higher education statewide.
But more on that later.
Meanwhile, in a state more than twice as big as Texas, five former community colleges that are now part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks serve students across some two-thirds of Alaska's land mass.
Yet those rural students' professors enjoy but a miniscule voice on UAF's faculty senate, the governing body that sets academic policy directly affecting those rural students.
Unfortunately, this situation is only getting worse.
In fact, faculty senate representation from UAF's rural campuses is about to shrink, following last month's faculty senate elections. That means in the upcoming 2013-14 academic year, out of 37 UAF faculty senate seats, the rural campuses will have just two senators (both from Dillingham) representing an estimated 160 rural communities both on and off the state's road system—from Tok in the east, to Kotzebue in the Northwest, to Unalaska to the south on the Aleutians and just about everything in between.
The faculty senate is the primary creator and overseer of academic policy at UAF, including at five branch campuses serving rural students in some of Alaska's most remote regions: Bristol Bay Campus in Dillingham; Kuskokwim Campus in Bethel; Northwest Campus in Nome; Chukchi Campus in Kotzebue; and the Fairbanks-based Interior/Aleutians Campus. (All but Interior/Aleutians are former community colleges.)
The rural campuses are administered from Fairbanks by UAF's College of Rural and Community Development, commonly referred to inside UAF as CRCD.
CRCD subdivisions include Fairbanks-based Community and Technical College (CTC), which delivers a wide variety of vocational, technical, and other skills- and jobs-oriented certificate and degree programs.
CTC and other Fairbanks-based CRCD faculty typically vote the lion's share of representation onto faculty senate. In fact, four of CRCD's six 2013-14 senators are from Fairbanks, mostly from CTC, formerly known as Tanana Valley Campus. (The UA system underwent a major statewide restructure in 1987, before which CTC operated independently from UAF as Tanana Valley Community College, as did all but one of UAF's other present-day rural campuses.)
Mike Davis, one of the two rural-based faculty senators next academic year, believes UAF's current governance structure must change if the rural campuses could ever hope to strengthen their voice on the Fairbanks campus.
"We are often outvoted," said Davis, a veteran educator, former state legislator, and entrepreneur.
Davis is an associate professor in UAF's Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development. Before joining the university in 1996, Davis had served four terms in the Alaska legislature in the 1980s. He has commercial fished out of Dillingham since 1978.
Davis believes the rural campuses enjoy scant influence on academic matters in Fairbanks because too many urban faculty—outside of faculty members in the Fairbanks-based CRCD —lack a basic understanding of rural Alaska's unique, "bare-bones" college student experience.
Rural UA students are typically non-traditional in many ways. They are generally older. They often live in remote, cross-cultural settings on and off the road system, often in Native villages. They are raising families, working full-time jobs, and serving in leadership positions in their communities. They are not always part of a traditional "student body." In fact, they might be the only college student, or one of a handful, in their community.
At the same time, in recent years UA's rural student population has been getting younger, with more traditional college-age students attending the rural campuses. In addition, UA's dual-credit, tech-prep and college-prep high school programs also are expanding throughout rural Alaska.
Still, the rural Alaska college student experience typically does not include inviting recreation centers, large library facilities, elaborate study centers, on-site tutorial and counseling or advising services, extensive college-sponsored cultural and social events, or other, taken-for-granted urban campus amenities. Rural students often access their UAF courses through distance education, delivered over an audio conference or computer at home or in the local school, community center, or place of employment.
"There should be adequate representation (on faculty senate) to reflect our rural students' unique needs," said Davis.
That does not always happen.
For example, in the 1990s, UAF's faculty senate committee covering curriculum matters rammed through an elimination of the "No Basis" or "NB" grade, which many rural faculty used most often for beginning students. Enrolled students not participating sufficiently in a class might receive an NB grade so as not to penalize them down the road, especially for those just learning the Western higher education system.
At the time of the NB grade controversy, rural faculty argued that if urban faculty objected to the NB grade, they didn't have to use it, but urban faculty should not block a useful grading option for rural faculty. Urban-based faculty pushed it through anyway. They had the votes.
Rural representative lacking
Predictably, rural faculty got outvoted, even though rural senators unanimously opposed the rule change in committee and also when introduced on the floor of the full senate.
The measure eventually passed with modest modifications, although a few years later, the faculty senate reversed itself, realizing its mistake and restoring the NB grade—although mainly because the change was creating paperwork headaches for the registrar's office in Fairbanks. For years, though, rural faculty had to work around the absence of the NB grade option, which since restored still proves useful. It should never have been abolished in the first place, something a stronger voting block could have prevented.
Outside academia all this seems like trivial inside baseball, but the NB-grade issue represents but one example of many when outvoted rural faculty lose in policy battles that penalize rural students and prevent them from succeeding in advancing their education that ultimately promotes a more productive workforce.
Such persistent conflicts point out UAF's nearly unmanageable mission covering vast and disparate obligations for postsecondary education in Alaska. On the one hand, UAF is the statewide system's flagship research university excelling in the sciences and many other admirable academic programs. On the other hand, through UA's statewide restructuring in the late 1980s, UAF took over operation of many of Alaska's former community colleges (as did UA-Anchorage and UA-Southeast, with only Prince William Sound Community College in Valdez surviving as a bona fide community college).
UA restructuring impact endures
UAF was once an overwhelmingly academic institution. Today it continues to struggle with added responsibilities from restructuring, such as a community college mission, including serving urban and rural developmental students entering postsecondary education underprepared.
In the late 1980s UAF also took over an extensive network of health care, voc-tech, and many other offerings at the Community and Technical College (formerly Tanana Valley Campus) in Fairbanks and at the other, rural-based, former community colleges. (Faculty members at CTC, though primarily an urban campus, maintain impressive outreach programs to the rural campuses.)
Few American universities must maintain such an incongruous mission, and none over such an immense geographic area. In many ways, it's as if rural and Fairbanks-based CRCD faculty members at UAF have been living in a forced quarter-century marriage, coupled with the rest of an institution that doesn't always "get" CRCD and its central focus and unique student needs.
This clash of cultures and missions—between an academic institution and so many former community colleges—is what critics warned about, and continues to this day, when Donald O'Dowd, former UA Statewide president, destroyed Alaska's community college system just before he retired and left the state in the late 1980s.
Community colleges in national spotlight
Today, ironically, some 26 years after UA shattered its statewide community college system, community and technical post-secondary education has surged in prominence nationally, spurred by such initiatives as the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges in 2010. (Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is largely responsible for the trend. In addition to her Second Lady duties, Biden still teaches English full-time at a Virginia community college while advocating nationally for community colleges.)
Unfortunately, many community college initiatives in Alaska have trouble advancing at UAF when buried by the more academically oriented and bureaucratic culture of Alaska's three urban-based universities, although neither side should take the blame for this arranged marriage. (Over the years some have suggested that UAF's rural campuses join UAA, with its greater student emphasis away from pure research. Also, Anchorage is more centrally located for every rural campus except the Interior portion of the Interior/Aleutians campus.)
In any event, if the faculty senate make-up were measured by student head count, though, UAF's College of Rural and Community Development (CRCD) would hold close to half the senate seats, according to Davis.
"Our college represents close to half the student body" at UAF, he said.
As unlikely as it seems that one UAF subdivision serves almost half of all students, Davis is correct.
According to UA Statewide, in Fall 2012 UAF's community campuses enrolled 5,042 students, with the entire rest of UAF coming in only slightly higher at 5,672 students, or just 630 more students than CRCD.
In Fall 2012, UAF also had 2,097 Alaska Native students, according to UA Statewide.
Protect CTC's Faculty Senate Presence, Expand Rural Campus Representation
Rural campus representation on faculty senate must increase. However, that doesn't mean senate representation of UAF's largest CRCD faculty sub-group, UAF's Community and Technical College, should shrink.
After all, CTC generates most of CRCD's student credit hours. As it stands now, rural campus faculty have always had significantly diminished chances for election to faculty senate.
Fairbanks-based CRCD faculty, both on UAF's Fairbanks campus and at the Fairbanks-based Community and Technical College, elect a greater share of faculty senators in the CRCD simply because there are more of them than rural campus faculty. Fairbanks-based CRCD faculty members rightly choose their interests, voting for colleagues they know and trust. That makes sense and should continue, but the current system still short-changes the rural campuses.
One senator for rach rural campus
We have a fair, reasonable solution.
Fairbanks-based CRCD faculty should separately elect at least four faculty senators, the number as of the 2013-14 academic year, according to recent election results. In addition, each rural campus should have one senator representing every rural campus. This would increase the existing number of overall senators by a modest three, from six to nine seats.
Such a plan surely would protect the interests and legitimate concerns about representation of Fairbanks-based CRCD faculty. Non-CRCD Fairbanks faculty senators also would not be losing their already significant voting majority.
"This would require changes in senate by-laws," Davis said, but it would be an equitable solution for rural students and faculty.
This model already exists elsewhere at the University of Alaska.
At least one UA statewide faculty union, the University of Alaska Federation of Teachers (UAFT), elects one campus representative per region, regardless of the number of faculty at each site, to its statewide executive board. That model reflects representation from every region the University of Alaska serves. This model has worked smoothly for decades, as all regions UA serves have a voice in the organization.
The UAF faculty senate needs a better system of representation that allows sparsely populated regions the university serves in Alaska a greater voice in governance on the Fairbanks campus.
Either that, or return to the more autonomous and responsive community college system in Alaska.
Susan Andrews and John Creed have taught in the humanities at UAF's Chukchi College in Kotzebue since the late 1980s.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.