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The University of Alaska has dodged a bullet. What should it do next?

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 31, 2019
  • Published August 31, 2019

From left, University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Daniel White, UA Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen and UA Southeast Chancellor Rick Caulfield speak at a UA Board of Regents meeting, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska. Facing severe budget cuts, regents voted 8-3 to authorize UA President Jim Johnsen to immediately reduce administrative costs and prepare a plan for a transition from three accredited institutions to one. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)

“The University should explore what the University would be like if 10 years from today, the ‘real’ (after inflation) value of its state appropriation has not risen, or even declined. What activities must the University improve or discard to operate efficiently in such a world? What things must it begin to do if this will be the state of affairs in 2020? What would this imply for tuition and fees? The number of questions that must be answered is almost endless.” — James Fisher, from "The Fisher Report,” 2011

By anyone’s reckoning, it was a near thing. The University of Alaska faced a gargantuan $135 million budget cut in a fiscal year that was already underway. Every day spent without making huge cuts in operating expenses meant those cuts needed to be bigger in the portion of the year that remained. There was serious talk of closing one of the system’s two largest campuses, in Anchorage or Fairbanks. Even if all three campuses remained open, the cut looked likely to pare them to the barest services: A prorated cut applied to all three campuses equally would have left Anchorage with its health care-related programs as the only academic offering.

It was only an abrupt reversal by the governor’s office that left the state’s higher education institutions facing $25 million in cuts instead, the reductions levied by the Legislature with no further vetoes. As UA President Jim Johnsen and Board of Regents chairman John Davies said at an event where Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced his change of plans, the cut is still substantial and must be undertaken with great care. But it’s not the buzzsaw the system was facing.

Now the university has time to breathe and consider its next move, which could come as soon as Sept. 12 but may not take place until November. Predictably, as soon as the institution was most of the way off the chopping block, a host of competing visions for the future of the system emerged. President Johnsen has proposed consolidating the system, switching from three separately accredited and managed campuses to a single accreditation shared between all three; he holds that this approach will allow greater efficiency in managing the campuses and the system as a whole. Faculty members at some campuses have argued against that approach, saying the current “consortium” model is better, that competition between campuses drives higher performance and that consolidation won’t actually save money.

With a state budget allocation still north of $300 million, UA can afford a great deal more than it could have if the $135 million cut had gone through. But it can’t afford to dither between its options. Now is the time to commit to a plan and wring all the efficiencies possible out of it with as little harm to academic programs as possible.

Those who oppose President Johnsen’s advocacy for single accreditation have frequently pointed to past studies that suggested such a move wasn’t worth the trouble. Most recently, a report by former UA Vice President Dana Thomas found that “single accreditation is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve cost savings, enhance the student experience or improve state higher education performance measures.” Thomas’ report recommended that cost savings be achieved via elimination of duplicative programs between campuses, a clearer definition of the role of each campus and a keener focus on that mission. However, state support may well continue to dwindle and the traditional university system can’t be supported as it currently exists.

The problem with sticking with a state of affairs that closely resembles the status quo, however, is that none of the system’s current problems would be solved. And even the most ardent advocates for the university must — and do — admit that the system as it exists now has many problems. Stakeholders at the University of Alaska Anchorage resent the University of Alaska Fairbanks for its high costs and superior attitude as the system’s primary research university. UAF faculty and staff are wary of the program creep at UAA that has led to the costly duplication of majors, as well as Southcentral legislators’ favor for their home campus. Far from the Railbelt power struggle, University of Alaska Southeast supporters worry that with strong voices arguing in favor of UAF and UAA, their campus will be relegated to the backseat both in programs and funding. University stakeholders should allow leadership to pursue the single accreditation model. Now there is time to thoroughly vet it, and it should be judged objectively, without regard for individual fiefdoms.

Whatever solution the university chooses, it will have little hope of success if its members — students, faculty, staff and administration — don’t recognize that change is necessary. Whichever option can deliver the best educational experience to students at the lowest cost is the one the university must pursue, and the university can’t afford to have its members pulling in different directions. The paralysis of indecision led the system to spend the eight years since the Fisher Report kicking the can down the road, and it’s the same phenomenon that has led legislators to punt on a structural fix for the state budget deficit for five years running.

The University of Alaska may not have suffered a death blow, but the cuts it stands to incur during the next few years will be a wound that turns septic if its leaders don’t act decisively. And UA stakeholders must work to ensure the plan succeeds, rather than root for its failure. In its fight to maintain its status as an institution that can help propel Alaska into a better future, the university has no time to waste.