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The University of Alaska has better options than consolidation

  • Author: Lea Bouton
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 11
  • Published September 11

The University of Alaska Anchorage campus, photographed on Friday, July 12, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

President Jim Johnsen avidly supports consolidating the three separately accredited institutions of the University of Alaska System into one, and as such, the University System has already expended significant resources in advertising the purported merits of that approach. This is why, as concerned alumni of the University of Alaska Anchorage, we are working with our community to save our alma mater before an irrevocable decision is made without a majority of stakeholders fully understanding the impacts.

We understand the simple math presented – that one accreditation is fewer than three and must, therefore, be less expensive. Unfortunately, there is a lack of evidence to support this reasoning; rather, ample examples show that mergers cost money in both the short- and long-term.

Further, the collapse of three distinct universities into one mission will ultimately exclude many Alaskans who deserve access to high-quality local education. One example is the loss of open enrollment for UAA students. The University of Alaska Fairbanks does not allow open enrollment, and therefore, many in Southcentral Alaska will be unable to start or complete their education. The subsequent reduction in enrollment will further damage reputation and the bottom line.

With that in mind, below are some reasons we believe saving UAA (UAF and the University of Alaska Southeast, too) as separately accredited universities is presently the best course:

The “crisis” has passed: While a likely $70 million cut over three years is no small reduction, there is time to move forward with a plan that includes and encourages analysis and stakeholder input.

Chancellors, who are full-time community members, are better able to collaborate with business and community leaders to address economic opportunities and challenges. Anchorage relies on a university that is nimble and responsive in the face of a changing Alaska, while maintaining strong partnerships to support a diverse student body. Chancellor Cathy Sandeen has proven this through her ability to absorb the budget cuts allocated to UAA.

Alumni as donors are substantially tied to the institution from which they graduated, not to the system. Though the UAA Alumni Association is still young, there has been significant growth in involvement; feedback shows that this heightened engagement will likely end with a consolidated university plan.

Multiple parallel programs throughout the system do not imply redundancy, especially when we still cannot meet the industry needs of our state. Having two Colleges of Engineering is not a duplicate expense, for example, when the total number of graduates does not keep up with demand. This lesson was outlined during Strategic Pathways; industry is still forced to hire engineers from Outside, but strongly prefers working with deans at the local level to hire local talent. That is why a collapse of colleges did not happen several years ago. Similarly, there are not enough educated professionals in Alaska in any field, so reduction to the student body would be a mistake. The argument of increasing efficiency by increasing student-to-faculty ratio and reducing lead administrators does not bear fruit in producing successful program graduates.

Centrally managed institutions are not fundamentally more efficient than those with distributed decision-making. A full cost-benefit analysis, similar to the Thomas Report (2016), needs to be completed, and there is now time to accomplish this task.

A singly accredited UA will precipitate near- and long-term fights over where program and system administration is located and how system-wide rules and processes advantage or disadvantage oft-competing university missions (such as teaching and research). Individually accredited universities, on the other hand, would allow for an institution optimized for research and graduate education in Fairbanks, and an institution optimized to serve the students, health systems, and other stakeholder/community needs in Anchorage. The conflict over resources and where the University of Alaska is based is fundamentally destructive and would be institutionalized under the current consolidation effort. We should unleash Alaska’s universities to maximize their responsiveness and benefit to our students and our state.

The current trajectory leaves less than two months to rehash what Strategic Pathways took almost a year to determine was infeasible for academic programs, and not in the best interest of Alaskans. The work to determine if consolidation would function has not been done. It is the regents’ role to demand real analysis of how to implement improvements and efficiencies that actually benefit all current and potential students in Alaska.

We question the process that has brought us to this point.

We ask that the members of the Board of Regents exercise their duty to all Alaskans in the service of higher education and resist the temptation to simply believe talking points over actual analysis and experience.

We urge the Board of Regents to vote against an expedited program review.

This letter is written with unanimous approval of the University of Alaska Anchorage Alumni Association Board of Directors.

Lea Bouton is the president of the UAA Alumni Association. She lives in Anchorage.

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