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Report: University of Alaska system needs an overhaul

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Posted: Saturday, January 22, 2011 4:02 am | Updated: 1:54 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — An independent review of the University of Alaska system suggests it could benefit from an administrative overhaul, including a massive staffing cut from its central offices.

The 93-page report, which was released on Thursday, was commissioned by UA President Pat Gamble soon after he began work in June.

It offers a detailed look at many facets of the UA system, including academic programs, use of technology, long-term planning and student achievement. But the suggestion that administrative staffing could be drastically reduced stood out, with as many as 80 positions eyed for elimination.

In a memo posted on the UA website on Thursday, Gamble praised the Fisher Report while cautioning that it’s a complex document and not “a blueprint to be followed dogmatically.”

The report said there is evidence that parts of the UA system are too centralized, with “no persuasive reason” why most hiring, evaluations, alumni activities, fundraising and other activities should be handled out of a central office.

“Individual campuses are much closer to the action,” the report states.

Steering away from a centralized “command and control” model would allow the system to reduce its central staff, the report said, perhaps slashing 60 to 80 positions from an estimated 200 personnel working in such jobs today.

UA spokeswoman Kate Ripley said it’s not clear specifically which administrative positions the Fisher Report is referring to. But Gamble said he doesn’t want UA employees holding administrative jobs to be alarmed by the report, and said much analysis remains before it leads to any specific recommendations.

“We’re not going to take one piece of data from an outside team and blindly decide we’re going to execute that,” he said.

But he said the recommendation to streamline the administration caught his attention, particularly since a more limited 2008 review of the UA system came to some similar conclusions. Gamble said the report will be one of the primary topics discussed during a retreat with the UA Board of Regents next week in Anchorage.

Gamble, a former Alaska Railroad executive and U.S. Air Force general, commissioned the report as a way to give himself a comprehensive look at UA soon after he was hired. The effort was led by James L. Fisher, a longtime educator and President Emeritus of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Fisher and four other researchers spoke to about 250 faculty, administrators, students and community members while compiling the report.

“We got a really top-notch team,” Gamble said. “We said take the blinders off, look system-wide and give us your best shot.”

The report also questioned other administrative elements of the UA system, particularly duplication and poor communication between the three main campuses in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau. It wondered why some academic programs, such as teacher education, have a presence on all three campuses.

Gamble said the three campuses sometimes have duplicate programs because it’s a necessary convenience for students in those regions. With the growth of online courses and distance education, he said that argument is becoming less persuasive.

Gamble said it’s important for campuses to communicate with each other better to be more complementary.

“If you don’t have collaboration, the tendency is for each campus to go off and do its own thing ... That’s where duplication becomes an issue,” Gamble said. “Right away, you can’t allow that to happen.”

Gamble said a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation paid for about 90 percent of the study. A grant amount for the project wasn’t immediately available from the charitable foundation on Friday.

Gamble said it will likely be months before any details from the report are translated into recommendations for reshaping the UA system. He said he’ll huddle with regents and get feedback from the UA community before making any suggestions.

“There’ll be no ‘ready, fire, aim’ solutions,” he said. “We’re going to take real steady aim.”

The Fisher Report can be viewed online at www.alaska.edu/files/pres/FinalFisherReport.pdf.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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