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University needs to stop running campuses like independent fiefdoms

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 9, 2015

A year and a half ago the University of Alaska Board of Regents voted to require all UA campuses to adopt the same schedule and to align basic course requirements.

Both directives led to moaning and groaning from faculty members and administrators who did not see a need to change the way they do business.

Five months after the regents acted, the president of the University of Alaska Anchorage faculty group reported that the "regents expressed anger at UA faculty for not moving forward quickly enough on implementation of the common calendar."

As well they should. The move to a common calendar should have been made years ago, but instead of making a decision in 2014, former UA President Pat Gamble took the task force route.

The 11 members agreed that it was really hard to get everyone to agree that classes should follow the same schedule: "The academic calendar is not simply a selection of dates and semester deadlines, but rather the manifestation of what a university believes helps create the conditions for success for its students. To some the campus calendar is intrinsic to the identity of the campus. Others view calendar alignment as infringing on the autonomy of the campus," it said in February.

There was hand-wringing about whether enough flights out of Alaska would be available if everyone had spring break during the same week: "Others believed that aligning spring breaks across the university would create a shortage of seats on airlines or would cause the airlines to increase ticket prices for that particular week."

Missing from the learned discussion was any sense that adopting a unified calendar is one of the biggest no-brainers in university history. And it shouldn't take that much to get the major school districts to set spring break during the same week, ending this topic for all time.

If university classes start and stop on the same date at each campus -- with corresponding dates for withdrawing, etc. -- it will be much easier for a student in Anchorage to sign up for an online course in Fairbanks. Or for a Fairbanks student to enroll for a course taught in Juneau. And more online courses, both packaged presentations and live transmissions, would be a greater service to Alaskans.

The calendar is an easier adjustment than the alignment of course requirements, and it should have been implemented by now, but it has not. The current plan is to do it next fall. A lot of this can be blamed on the inertia that comes with clinging to outdated beliefs.

With enough money in the budget, it's easier for the branches of the university to act as if they are independent operators sealed off from each other with walls that Donald Trump would envy.

But with the collapse in oil prices, it is a necessity for the campuses to find ways to economize and improve the delivery of instruction by combining forces, using modern technology to bridge the distances.

Experience elsewhere demonstrates that statewide programs can be run out of a single campus and exist in multiple places. Private businesses and state agencies do this. The university has taken some steps in this direction, but not nearly enough.

The challenge of how to manage budget pressures while working to improve and expand operations is one of the toughest tasks facing UA President Jim Johnsen, who has just taken over from Gamble.

I don't see this simply as retrenchment in the face of budget cuts. I suspect that combining departments holds the potential to make each stronger. The long-standing political competition between Fairbanks and Anchorage, which plays into the intercampus competition, is one reason for the current structure, but that dates from a period before the computer age when everyone had to be in the same room to learn.

Technology has made it easier to expand higher education in Alaska far beyond what any of us dreamed decades ago when the classroom did not extend beyond the walls. I think this is the point that former UA Regent Kirk Wickersham was getting at in a recent column complaining about antiquated systems and approaches at the university.

"With the smallest and most geographically dispersed student body in the nation, it needs to commit to standard course offerings, academic calendars, programs and degrees, and centralized, uniform, online delivery. Not in two years, but now," Wickersham said.

I think he's right. The university needs a new approach.

Over the years, university officials adopted the habit of saying Alaska has "three universities," not three branches of one university. Alaska can't afford three universities. It can make a strong case for a single university, one that can operate statewide without multiple administrative layers and is nimble enough to make changes when needed instead of getting bogged down with committees.

This won't happen without some administrative upheaval and some will say avoiding excessive centralization will be more difficult than agreeing on the dates for spring break.

I'm afraid that if university leaders don't pursue consolidation, the Legislature will do it for them, and not nearly as carefully or with as much planning as the topic deserves.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)