Opinions

University of Alaska is on a pathway to decline

Both the president and the board of regents have received the recent vote of no confidence in president of University of Alaska Jim Johnsen in a rather dismissive manner. Additionally there has been no coverage regarding the process or reasons behind the vote by University of Alaska Anchorage Faculty Senate. Therefore in the interest of the welfare of the university, all of the stakeholders in the university, and in the state of Alaska some facts need to be shared.

[UAA faculty votes no confidence in University of Alaska president]

The text of the resolution supporting the vote of no confidence cites numerous issues. Five of the most pressing are the utter lack of any financial justification for any of the actions taken under the guise of the Strategic Pathways process, the lack of any meaningful involvement of the faculty in violation of shared governance practices, the unprecedented volume of faculty turnover, the apparent loss of faculty positions, and the plummeting morale across all employees.

Strategic Pathways is purported to reduce redundancies, cut costs and strengthen excellence. It is also promoted as being an inclusive process that involves administration, faculty and staff. To this point committees composed of administration, faculty and staff have compiled pros and cons of a variety of options given to them. Two glaring problems with this approach are obvious. First, the current way of doing business is assumed to be wasteful and inefficient and that change is mandatory. While in some instances that may be the case, without establishing baseline measures of cost and effectiveness there is no way to know. Second, the committees were instructed not to consider any financial impacts of the options they evaluate. They were to develop lists of pros and cons for the options and they were expressly told not to make any recommendations.

The lack of any accounting for the baseline cost of operations, calculation of any projected cost savings, estimation of the cost of implementation, time to break even (payback period), or any metrics to measure the results promised (increased efficiency and cost-effectiveness) is dumbfounding. When asked a direct question about why there was no financial analysis to support any of the program decision-making (in front of the UAA Faculty Senate meeting in December 2016) Johnsen said, "There is no time." Making changes of the magnitude that this process involves absolutely requires financial analysis. The lack of concern for creating performance goals for the changes the administration is implementing and measuring whether the changes actually meet those goals violates the most basic of sound business practices.

[University of Alaska will deal with cuts, but no school can be great on short rations]

Faculty involvement in Strategic Pathways has been limited to sitting on committees. This is not shared governance. Shared governance is consensus-building with the faculty in areas that impact teaching, research and service. The faculty senates from all three campuses and the Faculty Alliance have all communicated directly with Johnsen and voiced their concerns regarding the process and it has fallen on deaf ears. Shared governance is not an option — it is a requirement for accreditation by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Further, the combined institutional knowledge of the faculty is invaluable to actually accomplishing the administration's stated goals.

For example, the faculty was directed to institute common course numbering across campuses. No outcome objective was given, just the directive. The work involved in doing this will cost thousands of hours of faculty and staff time, tens of millions of dollars, and it will take over five years. If we assume the goal is to make transferring credit from campus to campus in the UA system transparent to the students, faculty can accomplish this as part of normal course evaluation and curriculum maintenance over the same time period at a fraction of the cost. If the administration defined the outcome they wanted and let the shared governance system work, the resulting solution would achieve their goals and be cost efficient.

The final issues involve faculty turnover and loss of faculty positions. These are critical issues because stability in the faculty is crucial to maintaining the quality of our programs. When key players leave they are hard to replace and those leaving are among our best and brightest employees. Accreditation is based on their performance in service, research and teaching. This is particularly important in the professional schools that are accredited at the highest national and international levels.

The combination of the budget cuts, heavy-handed administrative actions, and Strategic Pathways is taking a tremendous toll on faculty intent to stay at the university. The base rate of turnover of United Academics (UNAC) faculty before 2013 was 4 percent (which compares favorably to well-run universities per the Chronicle of Higher Education). Since 2013 the annual turnover rate for UNAC faculty has ranged from 11 percent to 14 percent per year. From 2013 to December 2016, 446 UNAC faculty have left. That amounts to 47 percent turnover in three years. Also, the total number of UNAC faculty employed has dropped by nearly 100 in the last three years. It is not clear if this is because positions are being eliminated when faculty resign or if we just can't hire faculty fast enough to keep up with voluntary turnover.

Over 60 percent of the faculty who left are assistant and associate professors. We are becoming a training ground for other universities where we make the investment to get the faculty up to speed and productive and then they leave. These faculty also bring in a lot of grant and contract money for the university. If the losses in revenue attributable to the turnover of faculty due to grants and contracts leaving with the faculty were calculated it would be surprising if it were not in the tens of millions of dollars. In terms of strategic human resource management this is an abject failure.

In 2013, 25 percent of the faculty said they were actively looking for jobs in response to a UNAC survey. Last fall, 41 percent of the faculty responding to a UNAC survey said they are actively looking for jobs. Recent surveys by the UAA Faculty Senate show that 54 percent are concerned about job security and 84 percent say that morale is declining. The staff have the same issues with morale. In August 2016, in response to a Staff Council survey at UAA, 81 percent of the staff surveyed said that morale has declined and over half said morale is at the lowest level they have ever seen it. University of Alaska Southeast is no better. Their Staff Council survey shows that 59 percent say morale is declining and 71 percent say it is lower than they have ever seen it. This indicates that the university is in a crisis, yet no one in the administration or on the board of regents seems to care.

The faculty voted no confidence because there is no reason to have confidence in an administration that is incapable of implementing sound management practices. Additionally, the president appears to be willfully ignorant of all of the warning signs that the university is in crisis. The board of regents' response does nothing to instill confidence either. Perhaps they are not aware of the true state of the university. If that is the case, it is yet another reason to have no confidence in Johnsen.

Frank Jeffries is a professor of business administration at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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