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The zombie University of Alaska must end

  • Author: Paul Dunscomb
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 28, 2019
  • Published October 28, 2019

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.

During the week of Halloween, the chancellors of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Southeast will be presenting to the Board of Regents their suggestions for reform of the governance structures of higher education in Alaska required by their accrediting agency, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), which informed the Board on Sept. 28 that existing plans to reform the current structure were out of compliance with their standards.

Among the suggestions they are likely to make is to elevate the chancellors into co-equals with the president of the university system, answerable to the Board of Regents and with the ability to speak to them directly on matters pertaining to their accredited institutions.

However, this required overhaul of system governance provides the opportunity to make an additional, urgently needed, change. The University of Alaska must end.

When the Board of Regents determined that the University of Alaska would deed its accreditation to what is now UAF in 1975, they failed to take the next logical step and abolish the UA brand. This has led to a number of problems down the years which showed up vividly during the budget and restructuring crises of the past summer.

Since 1975, the University of Alaska has been a zombie institution. It has no accreditation. It has no faculty. It conducts no research. It has no students. It grants no degrees. In order to call oneself a university, one must do all of these things. And yet, the statewide administration based in Fairbanks does none of these. TV ads suggesting there is a program in which students can enroll, a campus they can attend and a degree they can attain from a University of Alaska come perilously close to perpetrating a fraud.

And yet, for decades, especially when discussing how much the Legislature should appropriate for support of higher education in Alaska, we have fallen into the habit of describing this as support for the University of Alaska, the administrative entity which is not a university, rather than the three accredited institutions -- UAF, UAA and UAS -- that actually deliver higher education in the state.

The evils of the continued existence of this zombie institution were made abundantly clear with the UA Strong campaign of the summer. Under this banner, the vast majority of Alaskans came together to support higher education in Alaska. Yet what they were ultimately supporting was their local universities, not a statewide administrative entity. Despite this, President Jim Johnsen used his position as the person designated to represent the system to the Board of Regents and the Legislature to make himself the public face of the university system during the crisis.

Whether this was the root cause of his determination to press for a reanimated UA circa 1974 is unknowable, but the obvious lack of shared input into the process and muzzling of opposition to the plan on the part of the president was the direct cause of the NWCCU’s stern rebuke on Sept. 28, demanding reforms in the system’s governance.

Just how much of a statewide administrative entity Alaska actually needs for its three universities to deliver higher education to Alaskans is debatable. However, as we work out the mechanisms for doing so under the new governance structures, it must be made clear that whatever organization the president of the system heads, it is not a university.

The intervention of the NWCCU has given us an opportunity to have a conversation about higher education in Alaska, how it is delivered, what Alaskans can expect of it and what value we should expect to get from it, that is long overdue. Let us begin that conversation by accurately describing the thing that we are talking about.

Let the zombie University of Alaska die! Let the universities of Alaska, UAF, UAA and UAS, thrive!

Paul Dunscomb is the chairman of the Department of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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