FAIRBANKS—Alaskans love University of Alaska hockey as made clear by the hundreds who rushed to social media after an announcement Thursday that it could be on the chopping block.
Commenters were quick to point out the benefit of having sports at the university. Sports draws athletes, students and donors, they argued, and others scoffed at the idea that hockey it could be replaced with soccer.
But for the hundreds of comments upset about the future of athletics at the University of Alaska's Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses, just 24 comments were sent to the UA's public comment system set up as part of the Strategic Pathways initiative, according to UA spokeswoman Robbie Graham.
The first wave of the plan reviewed athletics, a handful of administrative functions and three academic programs: engineering, teacher education and management.
It was management that received the most attention by Friday afternoon, Graham said, with a total of 50 public comments submitted through the system.
Athletics came in second, followed by teacher education with five comments and engineering with one comment. Administrative functions received a fair amount of attention, with 16 being submitted for information technology and seven for research administration.
The Strategic Pathways initiative was put in place by UA President Jim Johnsen earlier this year as a way to plan for the university's future amid continued deep budget cuts handed down by the Legislature. The plan is to re-evaluate the university's functions to look for places to eliminate duplication and consolidate where possible.
Teams familiar with each program are being tasked with reviewing them for potential changes. They've each generated a list of options that will be acted upon later this year, Graham said.
"These are not recommendations but are options to be considered," she said. "There is a long period of time for input, analysis and consideration on each of these options that will continue and will contribute to any final recommendation later this year."
The multi-year plan was condensed into a faster timeline because of the $25 million cut contained in the budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Walker. University administrators launched expanded opportunities for the public to sound off, including public comment and upcoming town halls.
As for athletics, the three options put forward were elimination of athletics at both campuses; combine, or create a consortium, for the athletics at the two schools; or modify athletics at UAA and UAF. The modification entails a downgrade from NCAA Division I athletics to Division II, which doesn't offer hockey, rifle or skiing.
Those sports, which the report calls the "most supported and successful programs" at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, would all end under the final option and be replaced with soccer, golf and track.
UAF Athletics Director Gary Gray was a member of the team that put together the options, which he stressed are just options and not recommendations. He said in a News-Miner interview Thursday that public comment will be critical to the process moving forward.
"At this point we would like to encourage people to log on to the website that the university system put out (Wednesday) and share their comments," he said. "Those will be read by a lot of people."
Public comment can be submitted online at alaska.edu/pathways/. A public town hall meeting on the options will be held at 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sept. 1 at the Wood Center Ballroom.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics. Sports Editor Danny Martin contributed to this report.