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We must rethink the governance of the University of Alaska

  • Author: Max Kullberg
    | Opinion
    , Joel Potter
    | Opinion
    , Sine Anahita
    | Opinion
    , Abel Bult-Ito
    | Opinion
    , Robin Gilcrist
    | Opinion
    , Marion Yapuncich
    | Opinion
    , Lisa Hoferkamp
    | Opinion
    , Michael Stekoll
    | Opinion
    , Jacqueline Cason
    | Opinion
    , David Fitzgerald
    | Opinion
    , Jill Flanders Crosby
    | Opinion
  • Updated: April 22
  • Published April 22

The Butrovich Building, home to the statewide University of Alaska administration offices, on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, on September 9, 2015.

As long as the University of Alaska is governed by a remote centralized body, it will never be able to adequately serve the needs of Alaskans. Since its establishment in 1917, the University of Alaska has expanded to 27,823 students at three separately accredited universities, based in Fairbanks (UAF), Anchorage (UAA), and Juneau (UAS) with 13 community campuses throughout Alaska. The UA statewide administration, with a $55 million annual budget, oversees the centralized governance of these universities and is run by President Jim Johnsen. The failure of President Johnsen and UA Statewide to understand the needs of local communities is highlighted by the recent decision to effectively eliminate UAA’s School of Education.

On April 8, 2019, under the recommendation of President Johnsen, the Board of Regents of the University of Alaska voted to eliminate all of the initial licensure programs in the School of Education at UAA. This elimination was carried out despite the recommendation of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and Chancellor Cathy Sandeen at UAA, resolutions by the UAA faculty senate and UAA student body, and numerous personal stories from Anchorage residents testifying to the need for teacher education programs in Anchorage. The recommendation by the president went against the very voices of the community it would affect and did not address the needs of Anchorage and neighboring boroughs. Without a strong pipeline of teachers, the K-12 education system in Southcentral Alaska will be devastated. A remote centralized governing body cannot possibly understand regional needs better than local leaders.

When Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed a $134 million cut to the University of Alaska, the Board of Regents asked President Johnsen to put forth ideas to deal with such severe budget cuts. His proposals were the partial or complete elimination of community campuses, restructuring UAS and the selected elimination of programs across the university system. The implication was clear: Campuses serving smaller communities were expendable, others had to be protected, and the president would decide which programs held value for individual communities. Nowhere in the proposals to the Board of Regents was the alternative idea that campuses could bear the weight of the cuts proportionally and that local communities could better decide what is of value to them.

With an annual budget of $55 million, the cost of UA statewide administration is equal to the entire cost of the University of Alaska Southeast. It is funded by money that UAF, UAA and UAS create through student tuition and research grants, as well as more than $17 million from the state of Alaska. To put the cost of statewide administration into perspective, the amount of the statewide budget covered in various ways by UAF, UAA and UAS, $37 million, is equivalent to more than 20 percent of all student tuition and fees received across the system. Nowhere in the president’s proposals to the board did he talk about budget cuts to UA Statewide.

When President Johnsen advised elimination of UAA’s education programs against the wishes of Anchorage, it was not a slam dunk. There was a heated discussion at the Board of Regents meeting and a 6-5 vote in favor, with dissenting votes from Regents Darroll Hargraves, Lisa Parker, Andy Teuber, Dale Anderson and Sheri Buretta. These regents either asked for more time to make a decision or that UAA’s School of Education be given a path to accreditation. We would like to thank them for defending the wishes of the Anchorage community. They seem to understand that the power of the university is not in centralized governance, but in the ability to forge local partnerships and to listen and adapt to the needs of our communities. Local control is a time-honored American ideal, one that Alaskans of all political stripes deeply embrace. Now more than ever, the dogma of greater efficiency through greater centralization needs to be called into question.

Max Kullberg, Joel Potter, Sine Anahita, Abel Bult-Ito, Robin Gilcrist, Marion Yapuncich, Lisa Hoferkamp, Michael Stekoll, Jaqueline Cason, David Fitzgerald and Jill Flanders Crosby are faculty members from the University of Alaska’s three main campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.

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