UA Board of Regents Meeting

UA President Jim Johnsen, left, listens to comments being made via videoconference during a special University of Alaska Board of Regents meeting to consider declaration of financial exigency Monday afternoon, July 15, 2019, in the UAF Butrovich Building. On July 22, 2019, university leadership declared exigency. The big question everyone is asking now is what will happen to the university system.

More than 30 testifiers from across the state shared concerns with the University of Alaska Board of Regents on Monday over what many consider to be a rushed process into consolidation as a result of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s large-scale budget cut to the university this year.

Nearly all of the callers who participated in Monday afternoon’s audio-conference public hearing said they opposed the idea of a single accredited university that would result from consolidating the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Southeast into one university.

The biggest message communicated by callers: slow down.

Many urged a methodical approach to cost cutting so as to avoid large scale slashes to programs and student services. 

Jennifer Tilbury, a faculty member at the UAF Community and Technical College in Fairbanks, emphasized the importance alternative education routes provide through smaller community colleges such as the one she works for.

“As the board considers options for restructuring, we advocate for retention of the whole community college system ... rather than paring down to just technical colleges,” Tillbury said. “Significant changes to the community campus model may significantly undercut local responsiveness. If there is consolidation, we urge you to adopt the structure that upholds the community college mission.”

Bernard Aoto, president of the Associated Students of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, also focused his testimony on student needs, emphasizing to the regents the importance of including student input in the decision-making process.

“In order to make sure that students are at the center, students need to be informed ... What I’ve been hearing from the Board of Regents and President Johnsen is students are the center. But although I’m hearing it, I’m not seeing it,” Aoto said. “I ask that when you’re considering determining one or three universities you take the time to consider what students want.”

Aoto was one of only a few students who called in, but UAF English Department faculty member Rich Carr shared similar concerns over what information is being shared and how input is being gathered. Carr noted he supported three separate universities rather than a consolidated system.

“My fear is that any such plan will in fact cause greater chaos, adding to much of the confusion of the last few years,” Carr said. “With the constant budget wrangling, I have seen an erosion of confidence in the university and I think a too quick effort to change the structure will further erode confidence.” 

Jomo Stewart, who spoke on behalf of the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp., was one of only a few testifiers who did not outwardly speak against a single university system. 

“I support streamlining administration and back-office functions, and I support the regents in aversion to cuts to academic programs,” Stewart said, noting he also supported the university’s main headquarters to be placed in Fairbanks.

Testifiers called in from communities including Anchorage, Big Lake, Fairbanks, Juneau, Meadow Lakes and Wasilla.

Regents are set to meet again Sept. 12-13 in Anchorage to further discuss plans to consolidate aspects of the university in an attempt to mitigate a $25 million cut in state funding this year.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.