By Tim Bradner
The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents voted Oct. 7 to shelve, for now, a controversial plan to consolidate university programs and accreditation. Few people think that will end the matter, however.
Damage has been done, meanwhile. University enrollment has dropped this fall particularly at University of Alaska Anchorage, and an earlier consolidation that led to the University of Alaska Anchorage school of education losing its accreditation has cut sharply into teacher training statewide, a major concern to school districts who have to recruit teachers from out of state, many of whom leave after a year or two.
Fall semester enrollment at University of Alaska statewide is down is down 9.3 percent, according to recent data. University of Alaska Fairbanks is down 2.9 percent; University of Alaska Southeast is down 5 percent and University of Alaska Anchorage by 13 percent, according to data supplied by the university.
In Anchorage, the sharp drop is mainly in continuing students, according to university date. This is a direct result mainly of publicity and anxiety among students over huge, 42 percent budget cuts proposed last spring by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy later backed away from this, agreeing to more modest reductions, but by then a lot of the university’s students, faculty and staff had decided to look elsewhere.
Ironically, the incoming freshman class at UAA was one of the largest ever, a result of an intensive recruiting campaign by the university last year. UAA’s loss, however, was mainly in continuing second, third and fourth-year students attributed to uncertainty over budgets and programs and whether students would be able to complete their degrees.
As for faculty and staff, state legislators were told in a hearing Sept. 20 that 27 percent of the UAA’s staff are now seeking jobs outside the university, a result of the uncertainty over reorganizations and budget. Normal turnover for a well-run university is 4.7 percent, members of the Senate State Affairs Committee senators were told.
UA’s school of education was cited at the hearing is an example of what can happen when a program consolidation is poorly planned or done in haste. The loss of accreditation of UAA’s education school, and subsequent termination by the Board of Regents, resulted from a poorly-managed 2016 consolidation of UA’s three separate teacher education programs with the University of Alaska Southeast put in charge of programs at all three of UA’s main campuses, the senators were told. The result was inadequate management attention being paid to the reaccreditation at UAA, resulting in the loss of accreditation.
An internal UAA document showed that the loss of UAA’s education school has resulted in 150 students dropping out of school, Dr. Jennifer McFerran Brock, a UAA mechanical engineering professor, told the Senate committee Sept. 20. Of UAA’s 474 education majors in 2018, 27 percent graduated in 2019; 17 percent transferred to other majors within UAA; 13 percent transferred to UAF; 11 percent transferred to UAS, and 32 percent – 150 students – did not continue at the university, essentially dropping out, Professor Brock said.
What are the arguments for consolidation at the university? Mainly they the current quasi-independent structure with three separate universities lends itself to the three competing for support from the Legislature. Even though the Regents do the actual budget allocations, many legislators, as well as Gov. Mike Dunleavy feel that a long history of competition among the three has detracted from the focus on teaching, it is felt by many.
This may never go away completely because of the inherent regional competitiveness of the state’s political environment, but many argue that having a single university system would ease the problem.
“The current (separate) structure lends itself to duplicate administration and competition,” for scarce resources among the three separate universities, president Jim Johnsen told the Regents last July. “We have 30 years of data that show that maintaining three universities leads more to competition than collaboration.”
That is disputed by many in the faculty who say they can point to many areas of collaboration among the three universities, but the view is still strongly held among state officials and within the Legislature.
Critics among the faculty challenge the idea that consolidation would bring any savings without loss of quality. Under some forms of consolidation being discussed include the engineering and business programs now managed separately at UAF and UAA, could be combined into single schools of engineering and business in a statewide university.
Superficially there seems a logic in combining separate engineering and business programs in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but critics asked for estimates of financial savings, which have not yet appeared. “We don’t see where the savings are,” one engineering professor who asked to remain unidentified, told the Anchorage Press.
The only way to really cut costs in consolidation is to terminate staff and switch to courses online in lieu of direct teaching by faculty, a move that saves labor costs but at the cost of instruction quality. In technical fields like engineering this is a prescription for a sharp decrease in the quality of instruction and an increase in student failure rates. “Can you compare the learning of a student sitting isolated in room looking at a computer screen with being in a class alongside peers, working in teams on projects and with face-to-face contact with instructors?” the engineering professor asked.
The risk is particularly great with nontraditional students (veterans, older students returning to school) as well as Alaska Native students, many who come from small rural schools. At the Sept. 20 Senate State Affairs Committee meeting, Dr. Max Kullberg, Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the WWAMI School of Medical Education, cited data showing that there is typically a 30 percent failure rate among underrepresented students in organic chemistry.
“When the exact same content, delivered by the same teacher, just moved to an online format, 70 percent of students fail,” Dr. Kullberg told the Senate committee. However, in the push for consolidation and cost savings the university administration is leaning heavily toward more online instruction even in professional and technical fields.
University of Alaska Anchorage students are particularly at risk in consolidation because UAA is an “open enrollment” university where UAF and UAS are not open enrollment (they require minimum Grade Point Averages in high school diplomas.) UAA is largely a commuter campus with 96 percent of its students living off campus; 48 percent of “nontraditional” age (i.e. older), the Senate committee was told. More likely than not UAA students are working or being caregivers, going to school part-time. This is the major reason for UAA’s six-year average graduation rate, a figure critics often point out.
The timeline for the university involved Dunleavy’s initial 41 percent budget cut proposed last spring for the university last spring, which sent shock waves through the institution. Dunleavy backed away from that but the governor, and legislators, continued to press the university to consolidate programs among its three campuses to save money. University president Jim Johnsen proposed a “one university” concept that would consolidate programs like engineering, business, arts and sciences that are now offered separately at UA’s three campuses, which are actually three separate universities each with their own accreditation.
In July, UA’s Board of Regents agreed to this and asked for a plan by September. By September loudly-voiced objections were being heard, however, and the Regents backed off, asking Johnsen instead to pursue multiple options including a single accreditation and a version of the current structure with separate accreditations.
However, the planning to consolidate programs continued and a new “one university” website stayed live, which faculty and many student interpreted to mean that the consolidation was continuing despite the changed position the Regents.
Accreditation emerged as a central issue. Without accreditation employers will not recognize the validity of graduates’ degrees and acceptance in graduate schools and federal financial aid will be in jeopardy. Regional accreditation of the three universities is not the only issue: There is also separate program accreditations.
“There are approximately 48 programs at UAA which carry specialized accreditation and they include programs from art and automotive and diesel technology to social work and surgical technology. There are also six baccalaureate engineering degree programs,” at UAA, each requiring accreditation, Professor Brock told the Senate committee.
What caused the Regents to formally call for the pause in consolidation was a Sept. 26 letter from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the Pacific Northwest regional accreditation group, warning the UA that accreditation of its entire system was at risk because of the controversy. The Commission asked for a written response by Oct. 31.
Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) and Mac Powell, NWCCU Senior Vice President, talked with the Regents Oct. 6 in a conference call: “We sent the letter… to make sure that the board heard the concerns we are hearing,” Ramaswamy said.
The issues that the NWCCU raised include clarity of roles and responsibilities of university leaders. Ramaswamy clarified that NWCCU does not consider the situation to be at a critical tipping point regarding maintaining accreditation. Rather, he said, there are concerns to be addressed.
Students, faculty and staff have raised questions about the reorganization, wrote to the NWCCU and the Board of Regents, passed resolutions, and voiced concerns about the restructuring process. Students testified that they feel left out of the decision-making process.
Faculty representatives shared their concerns with the process, timeline and the authority of the chancellors as CEOs of their universities.
Basically, the Regents signaled that they are willing to take a pause. “I don’t see it as being reactionary,” said Lisa Parker, one of the Regents, “but as being responsive to the constituents we are supposed to serve.”
The Regents also agreed to meet again in the final week of October to review the response to NWCCU, and to hold a strategy session at a future date to further address issues raised by NWCCU.
In specific actions, the Regents, by a 9-2 margin, voted to cease consideration of a single accreditation until after the University of Alaska Fairbanks secures its institutional accreditation in 2021.
If the board chooses to actively consider single accreditation in the future, it
will direct the president to conduct an independent cost benefit analysis
and clearly examine accreditation issues.
In the second action, by a vote of 9-1, the board suspended the systemwide expedited academic program review process until the Regents have the time to consult with the Chancellors of UAF, UAA and UAS and President Johnsen on a path forward.