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.

A group of 286 faculty members from the three main University of Alaska campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau gave the UA Board of Regents a plan Monday with the hopes of slowing consolidation of the university; a process floated President Jim Johnsen in an effort to pull costs in line with a $25 million budget cut handed down from Gov. Mike Dunleavy this year.

But the plan held little water for Regent Chair John Davies who told the Daily News-Miner in a Tuesday meeting he felt the plan was well thought out but ill timed.

“It would be great if we had the time to do that. It’s a very thoughtful document. It’s an approach that, in different circumstances, would make a lot of sense,” Davies said. “But what people don’t understand is that we still are on the hook to cut $25 million this year, this current fiscal year, and then another $25 in the next year. We can do that with the normal advance notice to faculty and staff, but only if we start now.”

The faculty group spoke just the opposite.

“Because the $70M reduction will be spread out over three years, we have time to make structural changes in a thoughtful, well-informed way,” the faculty plan’s introduction read. “We have been given a ‘glide-path’; we should use it.”

The plan presented to the regents was the work of a 43-member inter-campus working group formed this summer and charged with developing possible plans to integrate the budget cuts within the arts, humanities and natural and social sciences.

Outlined in a 38-page document, the group proposed delaying implementation of any large-scale plans for the next two years, instead managing the $25 million cuts this and next year by “allowing UA Statewide, UAA, UAF, and UAS to manage their portions of the $25M coordinating among (major administrative units), colleges and departments.” The plan did not go into detail as to how those areas would integrate the cuts each year.

The plan pointed to this current academic year as a “planning year to gather data while minimizing disruption to academic program,” while working to compile a number of restructuring options to consider the next year, including Johnsen’s preferred single-accreditation model, the chancellors’ proposed consortium model and something the group called a “proof-of-concept” model in which programs who favor consolidation should do it first and report back with how well it worked. 

Johnsen dispelled the chancellors’ proposed consortium model introduced during a July board of regents meeting in Anchorage, calling out the structural differences that he sees as interfering with the model.

“We’re not a consortium in a legal sense. We’re a university where the authority is delegated from the board,” Johnsen said, explaining that consortiums typically occur between independent universities working across systems.

Johnsen continued to point out areas he felt represented consortium type actions the university is currently taking up including consolidation of the UA’s human resources and information technology departments.

“We’re already capturing a lot of elements of what we would do in a consortium, but the fundamental difference here is that we’re not a group of independent entities who are voluntarily choosing to cooperate with each other legally speaking,” Johnsen said. “The constitution says we’re one university and we will use delegated authority to make things happen.”

With the current academic year categorized as “development” under the faculty plan, the next year –– academic year 2021 –– would ideally be used for evaluation. Individual campuses, colleges and departments would once again be responsible for eating the $25 million cut for fiscal year 2021 among themselves while the restructuring plans developed the year before were looked over.

The final year –– academic year 2022 –– would be set out for final implementation of whatever plan was deemed the most application.

Davies rejected the concept citing contract requirements and a ticking clock.

“Because it’s essentially an 18-month process to make a change, we have roughly six months to figure out what we want to do and determine that and then notify faculty that they’re going to be laid off and then there’s the 12 month piece in there to adhere to contracts,” Davies said. “A lot of people think we’ve got this 3-year glide path and that means we can just glide for three years and then implement a decision. The fact is we have to implement a decision this year. There’s no way around that.”

The group’s plan, however, outlined a number of concerns related to implementing changes now. 

“Given the gravity of the changes that must be considered,  and the potential for harm, we should allow time for evidence-based decision making and a well-informed and considered approach to all options,” the plan read. “In order to make an evidence-based decision about university structure, the single accreditation plan needs to be subject to a process of development and evaluation that involves a comparison with alternative models of restructuring. This will ensure the greatest benefits to students across Alaska while being cognizant of financial realities.”

The Board of Regents is scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday in Anchorage. While the university president was initially set to present a full consolidation proposal, Johnsen told the public in a video update last month that he was scaling back his area of focus from a full consolidation to a number of academic areas he deems necessary to review.

This areas include engineering, teacher education, health, management and business, natural sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences, indigenous studies, career and technical education programs, eLearning, organized research, public service, libraries and athletics. 

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her at Twitter.com/FDNMPolitics.