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Negotiating for the future of Alaska higher education

  • Author: Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 25, 2019
  • Published September 25, 2019

UA Board of Regents chairman John Davies and Gov. Mike Dunleavy sign an agreement for a 3-year, $70 million budget cut to the University of Alaska, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 at the governor's conference room in Anchorage. Dunleavy had originally vetoed $130 million in state funding for UA for the current fiscal year that started July 1, atop a $5 million cut approved by the Legislature. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

When Gov. Mike Dunleavy imposed a one-year, $136 million cut in the budget of the University of Alaska, key stakeholders — students, faculty, staff, administrators, alums, Native corporations, business leaders, legislators and others — were unified around saving higher education in Alaska. Now that it is $70 million over three years, the unity is fragmenting — even though it is still a major cut that calls for a coordinated response.

WayMark Analytics, a double bottom line organization that I co-founded, recently conducted a statewide survey of key stakeholders in Alaska’s higher education system. The survey was commissioned by the Board of Regents, which was looking for a neutral outside perspective. We heard back from 3,932 people, including 732 students, 703 faculty, 1,069 staff, 445 alumni, 157 business leaders, 43 tribal or Native corporation leaders and others. On many dimensions, there is wide agreement. For example, the vast majority of respondents — more than 90% — saw these interests as important: “Having a world-class higher education system in Alaska;" “Ensuring dependable state funding for higher education in Alaska;" ”Having all relevant stakeholders work together to ensure the best possible higher education system in Alaska;” and “Maintaining existing areas of research excellence in higher education in Alaska.” High marks also were given to: “Maintaining access to career and technical training programs at community campuses;” and, “Ensuring a cost-effective administration in Alaskan higher education.”

By contrast, the respondents are deeply divided on structural issues. The Board of Regents has indicated it is exploring a shift from three accreditations — Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau — for the 16-campus system to a single accreditation in order to better integrate student services and reduce administrative costs — each accreditation requires a chancellor, provost, and supporting structure.

The response has been an outcry from many faculty, alumni and others focused on preserving the separate identities of the campuses. We surveyed stakeholders on these issues and they are deeply divided. A total of 50% responded that “Enabling each campus to have its unique identity” is important — giving scores of seven, eight, nine or 10 on a 10-point scale, with 10 being “very important” — while 32% said it is not important — zero, one, two or three on the same scale, with zero being “not important.” At the same time, 52% responded that “Having all of higher education operate as a single, integrated system with programs and courses available at campuses statewide” is important, while 35% said this is not important.

The results are particularly important for those who had indicated “student” as their primary role, with 39% seeing each campus having a unique identity as important — compared to 50% overall — while 43% said it is not important. Among these same students, 61% indicated that operating as a single integrated system with programs and courses available at campuses statewide is important — compared to 52% overall — while 21% responded that it is not important.

Three things are clear from these and other stakeholder data. First, there are areas of common ground that represent a foundation on which to build. Second, in the debate on structure, there is not a clear majority. Third, there are options that can take into account the interests of all stakeholders, but it will require skillful negotiation.

It is possible to have unified accreditation while still retaining strong separate identities — sports teams, areas of excellence, administrative leadership, etc. It is also possible to retain separate accreditations while still advancing integration — aligning academic programs, ensuring a seamless student experience, reducing administrative overhead, etc.

At a time when most of the world’s nations see higher education as one of the leading engines for innovation and growth, it is essential for Alaska to ensure that it has a world-class higher education system that is matched to its unique location. As one survey respondent commented: “To be naturally inspiring, higher education in Alaska must reflect its setting: unique, diverse, changing, resilient and adaptable.” Another stated simply: “Globally respected, Alaska rooted.”

It will take all stakeholders pulling together to make this vision a continuing reality in the years and decades to come.

Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld is a professor at Brandeis University and co-founder of WayMark Analytics.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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