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UAA suspends chemistry degree program, citing trouble finding faculty

  • Author: Sean Doogan
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 18, 2014

Trouble finding faculty members and a growing hole in the state budget have forced the University of Alaska Anchorage to suspend its degree programs for chemistry majors.

UAA said the decision would not affect current chemistry students, but the school will not be accepting new chemistry majors until the program can be restarted.

John Stalvey, dean of UAA's College of Arts and Sciences, said there are 95 chemistry majors enrolled at UAA. Ten of those are co-enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which will retain its chemistry degree program.

The program's suspension came as a surprise to students and professors, Stalvey said, but the program could not be sustained.

"It's one of those things that has happened over a period of years," Stalvey said. "We have been unable to fill an organic chemistry faculty position that has been open for several years, with several failed searches. One of our young professors will leave this year. Unfortunately his family didn't love Alaska as much as we love Alaska, and we have another retirement coming up in May."

The university is in the process of finalizing its Program Prioritization Report, which is due for release in a few months. That report will help UAA officials decide which programs to enhance and which to potentially cut, as the state -- the main source of the university's funding -- faces an estimated $3.5 billion per year shortfall over the next two years.

Stalvey said the suspension of the chemistry program is unrelated to the prioritization work.

He said the university would continue to offer chemistry classes and will support related majors, including nursing, geology and other sciences, that require chemistry classes. Students currently enrolled as chemistry majors will be allowed to finish their degrees at UAA, Stalvey said. The current plan is for current majors to finish upper-division coursework over the next two years.

The suspension drew a swift reaction from some faculty members and students, who say they should have been consulted before drastic measures were implemented.

Chemistry professor John Kennish said he is worried the temporary suspension could become permanent and wonders if other alternatives, like increasing class sizes and consolidating several types of chemistry majors, were considered.

"I am concerned about having the opportunity for students to be involved in the process," Kennish said. "The decision was made from the top down, and there was little involvement from students or faculty."

A department meeting with students is planned for January, but that has some of them worried.

"I feel like they (university administrators) are going to try to push us through the program," said Adrian Lena, 20, a biochemistry major and premed student, "and wonder if that will be at the expense of the quality of the education we get."

Stalvey said continuing the chemistry degree program at UAA would cost about $2 million dollars annually over what the school is already spending. A big part of that cost would be giving new faculty members "start-up money," commonly used by universities to fund research projects and attract grants.

Stalvey said UAA's future is tied, in large part, to the financial stability of the state, which has seen its revenue stream reduced to a trickle by oil prices hovering under $60 per barrel.

"We hope to rebound from whatever bottom we hit," Stalvey said. "When the economic conditions get better, we will try to rebuild the faculty to the point that it can support a good, robust major program."

But knowledge of chemistry is crucial to many other sciences and industries, said Lena, the premed student.

"All industries in Alaska will be affected by this in some way because we need chemists," Lena said. "And if we are not providing these chemists through the university in Anchorage, will we be looking for sources from out of state."

Stalvey said the decision to suspend the chemistry major helped stave off even bigger reductions.

"I do not see that as a last-resort sort of decision," Stalvey said. "It allows us to put off a last-resort decision, which would be to delete the program."

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