Wickersham, Cole off base in criticism of University of Alaska system

Two commentaries regarding the University of Alaska recently published by Alaska Dispatch News require a response. The pieces by former regent Kirk Wickersham and ADN columnist Dermot Cole demonstrate barely disguised hostility toward the University of Alaska and a profound want of understanding about what this institution offers to our state. They certainly do not describe the University of Alaska Anchorage I know and proudly serve as member of the faculty.

Wickersham's commentary of Nov. 4 is the most easily dealt with. First he's wrong. UAA currently stands tied for 77th in the latest rankings (not 68th) on U.S. News and World Report's list of regional universities (Western Region). Yet consider the criteria used to generate those rankings, which includes exclusivity of admissions, resources for faculty (more is better), levels of student aid (more is better there, too), retention, and graduation rates. Then factor in that this Western region includes many private universities with considerable advantages over UAA and the vast state university systems of Texas and California against which we must compete. Ranking 77th puts us pretty squarely midpack. Certainly there's room for improvement, especially on graduation rates, but hardly the basis to conclude that UAA "is just not very good."

More surprising is the conclusion he draws from this, which is that rather than trying to improve its relative ranking, UAA should abandon any aspirations to academic quality and become a for-profit online diploma mill. He urges us to remake ourselves to serve "Betty," a model nontraditional student. The thing is, UAA has been serving Bettys needs for a long time now. Percentages of nontraditional students at UAA have always been well above national averages, and we members of the faculty work hard to accommodate their needs in our class offerings. This includes the transformation of many face-to-face courses to distance delivery (of which online learning is a part, but not the whole).

What Wickersham misses is that while UAA's ratio of nontraditional students remains high, the number of traditional students has been growing steadily over the years. And while many of them are thankful for the flexibility that online courses may offer, they also appreciate and desire the meaningful experience that comes from being together with the professor and their fellow students in a classroom. Are they not an equally important segment of our population to whom attention ought to be paid?

And speaking of population; if 5 percent of all Alaskans feel the University of Alaska is worth enrolling in currently, how bad can we be?

Far more disturbing was Dermot Cole's piece on Nov. 9, which complained about the delay in implementing the Board of Regent's decision for adopting a common calendar and aligning General Education Requirements. Among the many problems with his commentary is his failure to recognize that the original decision by the regents was a solution in search of problem.

Yes, there are variations in course numbers and titles among the institutions, but their basic content, skill-sets taught and student learning outcomes align perfectly well. Moreover, a few very specific instances of program requirements aside, the general requirement courses transfer just fine among the institutions. The idea there is a backlog of frustrated students stymied by their inability to get required courses from one institution to count at another is, quite simply, a myth.


The supposed virtues of a common calendar seem even more ephemeral. Students taking classes at UAF are hardly discommoded by the students at UAA taking classes a week earlier or later (especially since anything taken from another unit would have to be online). And to dismiss concerns about seat availability on airlines during a common break week as mere "hand-wringing" is naive. Apart from the logistical challenges Alaska Airlines and other carriers would have airlifting a substantial fraction of Alaska's population out of state and back, over the space of eight or nine days, the mere existence of such a captive population is an invitation to airfare abuse. And what exactly are faculty and student families with children in school supposed to do with their kids when local district breaks don't match up?

What seems to irk Cole most is the way "the branches of the university act as if they are independent operators sealed off from each other." Here especially Cole betrays his ignorance of what the UA system and UAA have become. UAA, UAF, and UAS, despite being under a common umbrella, are separately accredited institutions based in distinct communities and geared to meeting their own community's needs.

This may not have been the plan, or the desired outcome on the part of statewide authorities, but it is the reality which exists today. My retired colleague Will Jacobs put this very eloquently on page 147 of his book, "Becoming UAA, 1954-2014," when he wrote, "It is important to recognize how much has been achieved by complex self-organization, interrupted occasionally by fiscal distress (or agonizingly long fiscal restraint), occasional infighting, and periodic repackaging. Smart and aggressive people have taken advantage of opportunities to teach, pursue scholarship, advance their causes, and persist in the face of a sometimes bewildering mixture of difficulty and opportunity."

I will use the History Department which I proudly chair as an example. Although small for an institution of our size (some 18,000-plus students throughout Southcentral Alaska) the UAA history faculty consistently provides high-quality instruction (in class and online) for every UAA student completing their requirements. A significant fraction of our majors go on to graduate schools (often in elite programs with full support) and many more enter teaching programs, serving the needs of Alaska's K-12 students from the Railbelt to the Bush.

While doing this, my faculty also engage in a wide array of service activities, without which UAA would cease to function, and have amassed a publication record of significant scholarship which has garnered for them, and UAA, national and international recognition. They do this at a cost per student-credit-hour among the most efficient in the entire UA system. Moreover, they do it with a standard of professionalism and collegiality that is the gold standard against which all others should be measured.

In a time of fiscal constraint, neither the first nor the last we have suffered, it is important to make decisions based on facts on the ground rather than an idealized picture looking from the top down. Far more urgent than making the UA system a homogenous whole is to enhance the distinctiveness that provides real value for the communities where its institutions reside. Far too much of the discussion about the university today takes place with a true lack of understanding about what actually exists here and now in Anchorage and what UAA offers to Southcentral Alaska and the entire state.

I would urge those who agree with Wickersham and Cole to come to UAA and see what its faculty and students are achieving. They will be surprised. They ought to be very proud.

Paul Dunscomb is chair of the Department of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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)alaskadispatch.com.

Paul Dunscomb

Paul Dunscomb is chair of the Department of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage.