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Regents should back away from devastating cuts

  • Author: Yelena Matusevich
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 3
  • Published June 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.

The public needs to be urgently aware of the slaughter of its public institution, scheduled to take place on June 4-5. The University of Alaska Board of Regents may eliminate programs and departments in a move that will save little to no money, while causing irreparable damage to Alaska.

Among the programs scheduled for execution are those unique across the UA system (e.g. sociology and atmospheric sciences) and highly enrolled programs, impacting more than 800 students. How does the loss of tuition dollars from 800 students, whom UA is obliged by law to ‘teach out’ anyway, represent a saving strategy? How is eliminating Department of Atmospheric Sciences cost-efficient, if it raised $48 million in grants in the past five years ($9.6 million per year) and already secured another $10 million per year for the University of Alaska Fairbanks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which surpasses by more than 60 times the $162,278 estimated savings that its closing would represent?

Moreover, the department is vital for air pollution research modeling, and produces climate scenarios used in projects that assess how climate change affects Alaska. These projections are used by policy-makers to minimize the effects of climate change on local communities. Don’t the Regents need to breathe? Judging by their determination to eliminate all environment-related programs, they don’t. Don’t they have children or grandchildren though, whom they love and might want to survive? Because when it becomes really scary, as with the coronavirus, we all turn to scientists to save us.

In Alaska, these scientists are in the Department of Atmospheric Science, which is currently on the frontline of the coronavirus war, closely cooperating with virologists in testing laser raman spectroscopy for virus identification, as well as developing a new pneumatic breathing mask to use in enclosed spaces for Navy and commercial navigating systems. Don’t members of the Board of Regents know that? They do.

They have received countless letters urging them to reconsider their decisions from students, scientists, community members, and depending organizations, as well as official UA Faculty Alliance and Faculty Senate resolutions. So why, then, do members of the board, who claim on their website to uphold values of “unity in promoting communication and collaboration” and “accountability to our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the diverse peoples of Alaska” have no accountability to faculty and students, whose opinions are systematically dismissed and intentionally overlooked? Why does the board disregard the standard for shared governance, even though the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, by which the three universities are accredited, specifically requires that the institution’s decision-making processes must include provisions for the consideration of the views of faculty, staff, administrators, and students on matters in which each has a direct and reasonable interest?

Because they have been listening to only one voice: that of UA President James Johnsen, who runs the UA system like a CEO, whose commands are supposed to be passed down and implemented without further fuss, and who deals with the Board of Regents like a CEO with his corporate buddies. As a CEO, he sees UA not as a public education institution, but as a money-making scheme — like the online Western Governors University (WGU), with large classes facilitated mostly by teaching assistants. This is why so much of the proposed cuts are to faculty, while, according to March 2020 independent report by National Center for Higher Education Management “By all comparative measures, UA spends more on administration than (almost all) other systems," exceeding the average for public universities by 170%.

This is why top-heavy UA administration, with the Regents’ blessing, is ready to cut even the coronavirus-fighting research they claim to promote. However, even from the administration point of view, cutting exclusively productive faculty, underpaid adjunct labor and staff stops making sense at a certain point. Besides the grief of no one left to micromanage, does the board want UA to repeat the fate of WGU, which was almost fined $712 million by the Education Department’s Inspector General for an inadequate faculty role?

Yelena Mazour-Matusevich is a foreign language professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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