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Meet the new university, same as the old university

  • Author: Ian Hartman
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 3
  • Published September 3

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.

Despite a less bleak budget picture for Alaska’s universities and some time for a deliberate, fact-based discussion of system restructuring, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen has continued his pursuit to collapse Alaska’s three universities into one single accredited institution. Yet it is not at all clear why one should rush into a poorly reasoned reorganization. It is clear, however, that Johnsen’s proposal for a single accredited university takes the system back 45 years to an Alaska one wouldn’t recognize today.

If older Alaskans find something familiar in the proposed “new UA,” it might be that it looks extraordinarily similar to the old UA, before 1974. That UA, firmly rooted in Fairbanks, had extension sites in Anchorage and Juneau. The discussions thus far for the new UA, and much preparatory work currently underway in Fairbanks, assumes as a matter of course that the University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Southeast would be abolished and absorbed into the accreditation of the University of Alaska Fairbanks under a merger arrangement.

The fact that UAA and UAS have developed their own missions to best serve their respective communities does not seem to trouble the president and his allies at the statewide administrative office. Neither does the fact that to keep the lights on and the buildings heated and maintained costs nearly twice as much in Fairbanks as it does in Anchorage. Meanwhile, the student population in Fairbanks is now less than half of what it is in Anchorage and under one-quarter of the entire system. Therefore, the president should provide a precedent and rationale for consolidating administrative functions and accreditation precisely where costs have long been among the highest in the nation and where enrollment has long atrophied.

It might also be worthwhile to recall why the Board of Regents and former UA President Robert Hiatt granted separate accreditation in 1974 to what would become the University of Alaska Anchorage. Simply put, they recognized the obvious: Alaska had changed spectacularly over the preceding decades, and the “old UA” was obsolete. Southcentral Alaska had become the state’s economic engine, and 55% of Alaskans would soon live within 100 miles of Anchorage, by far the largest population center within a 1,000-mile radius. Clearly, a full-service, comprehensive university would be required to serve the region’s needs. The board and president thus concluded that it made no sense to administer and accredit UAA, the state’s most rapidly growing university in the nation’s largest state, remotely from 400 miles away.

The above facts raise three basic questions: Will the “new UA” function foremost as an institution to protect highly paid administrative jobs in the statewide office? Will the tail wag the dog? Or shall it serve the greatest number of students in the most direct, cost effective way? The president’s “new UA” seems to answer the first two questions affirmatively. Little evidence suggests that he has constructively taken steps to address the third.

But the final, most important question might then be: What makes a revived, pre-1974 version of the old UA appropriate for the evolving needs of current Alaskans, and more specifically the 400,000 residents located in Southcentral?

From the very beginning of the crisis, those who have doubted the wisdom of the “new UA” have received vague assurances that consolidation in Fairbanks could achieve significant savings while any disruption to current students, loss of enrollments of future students, program elimination or erosion of alumni support could be avoided. But extraordinary claims require incontrovertible evidence, especially given the catastrophic risk of a system-wide loss of accreditation, or the state’s population center losing its only comprehensive public university.

Before making any determination regarding the future of higher education in Alaska, the Board of Regents must demand accurate data and consider deeply the costs of further concentrating operations in a prohibitively expensive, demonstrably inefficient location that lacks an economy of scale. Without doing so would violate the basic duty of stewardship – ensuring that no harm is done to the institutions for which the regents have an obligation of care. It is my hope that the University of Alaska Board of Regents pose the above questions, receive honest answers and act accordingly. Alaskans deserve nothing less.

Ian Hartman is an associate professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage and co-editor of the recently-released book, “Imagining Anchorage: The Making of America’s Northernmost Metropolis” (2019).

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