A proposal to absorb the University of Alaska Southeast into campuses in Fairbanks or Anchorage was not well-received, during public testimony before the Board of Regents Tuesday night (6-2-20).
The university system in the state is facing a budget deficit in the tens of millions, and has floated a handful of ideas for remaining solvent — two of which would radically alter the programs and administration of the system in Southeast Alaska.
Note: The University of Alaska Board of Regents will meet in full session to pass a budget for next year, 8 A.M. – 5 PM on Thursday, June 4, and 9 A.M. – 3 P.M. on Friday, June 5. Listen to the livestream.
The die was cast for the University of Alaska in February of 2019, in Gov. Dunleavy’s first budget proposal. It included a whopping cut of $135 million to the state’s university system, along with deep cuts to funding for K-12 public schools.
The university was able to put the brakes on that cut — by negotiating a more gradual reduction in the budget spread out over several years. The deal has left the university looking at trying to close a deficit next year of between $11 million and $36 million — with additional financial pressure coming from reduced enrollment due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The main options under preliminary review right now include the expected — like more academic integration across the system, and more integration of distance learning — and two significant structural changes: Absorbing the University of Alaska Southeast into the operations of campuses in either Fairbanks or Anchorage, or merging all of the system’s community campuses under UAS.
During public testimony before the Board of Regents on June 2, there was significant opposition to the proposed structural changes that would end UAS as an independent entity.
Lisa Busch is the director of the Sitka Sound Science Center.
“Our field stations brings researchers here from around the world,” said Busch. “The University of Alaska Southeast presence demonstrates to them the value the state puts on intellectual resources, and an ability to tie their research into something beyond our small community. Closing the campus makes absolutely no sense, especially because we’ve spent generations acquiring equipment and building infrastructure that helps train people in jobs that Alaska needs.”
Busch pointed to the strong program in fisheries technology at UAS Sitka that has buoyed the aquaculture industry in the region for several decades.
City and Borough of Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon also spoke to the importance of UAS for supporting job growth. She said that the CBJ had spent $1 million to help anchor the university’s School of Education in Juneau. She opposed any plan that would see UAS absorbed into another entity.
“UAS is vital to the educational opportunities for young people in Southeast Alaska, and is key to helping young people remain in the region, and maintaining a highly-skilled workforce especially in the teaching and mining fields,” Weldon said. “Many adults in the area, including myself, have taken classes at UAS, either to start our careers or to finish them. UAS is also an economic driver within Juneau and elsewhere in Southeast. When our state government employment, tourism industry, ferry system, and many defined aspects of our communities have been devastated, these aspects make UAS even more important.”
The Board of Regents also heard testimony from students and faculty opposing the elimination of UAS as a separate entity. Most gave passionate testimony about the impact that UAS had on their lives. Perhaps none more passionate than this individual:
“Madam Chair, my name is John Pugh. I’m the retired chancellor of the University of Alaska Southeast. I served as chancellor for 16 years, and worked at UAS for a total of 26 years…”
Pugh argued that the university system had been on the ropes financially before, but had never rolled out a top-down plan proposing such major structural changes. He urged the Regents to pause, and engage the university community in a search for solutions.
“…You have difficult decisions. You need to engage the faculty, the staff, and the students in making these decisions. You also need to engage — as Mayor Weldon said — the affected communities. When you do this, creative solutions arise. We saw that in the 80’s, it will happen again 30 years later. I recommend that you broaden your review beyond the three major recommendations made by the president, and engage the communities to come up with ideas for this.”
Former Chancellor Pugh was referring to the Transformation Options presented to the Board of Regents by University President Jim Johnsen. Some of those testifying before the board commented on Johnsen’s desire to leave the university during this crisis, and move to the University of Wisconsin, where he is the sole finalist as university president there. Johnsen was described by one student as “abandoning the ship.”
The University of Alaska Southeast has campuses in Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka. Registration for fall classes opened in April.