Community Perspective

We need to treasure our university

It’s no mystery that our University of Alaska has been under siege for several years now. I am, of course, closest to the university in Fairbanks where I have a long history, first as a graduate student, then a research associate, a faculty member, and now as a professor emeritus. My purpose in this piece is to give a better understanding of why the university is so important to all of us.

Recently this deep concern with the future of our university and its treatment by the Legislature and governor led to the realization that there are many important facts about our university that don’t get enough press, and consequently, the public is unaware of important university realities. I want to cover two very important issues in this column. They are, first, the importance of keeping the university appealing to students and, second, the value to the community and the world of our university’s research.

Because of the stresses and the cutbacks in funding, the university has lost somewhere near half of its professional staff. Think of that! How would your workplace or your business do if you had to lose 50% of your staff and especially some of the most valuable because they got offers to go elsewhere because they had more secure financial and professional situations offered to them? In these circumstances it would seem difficult to keep our university appealing to students. Why would students go to a place where the future seems so unpromising and many faculty were being swept away? Well, it turns out that the University Alaska Anchorage actually did lose about 30% of its students, but because of the really good policies and investments in student recruiting, the university in Fairbanks hardly lost any and almost had exactly even enrollment in the past two years. It’s an example of just how much effort has gone into trying to sustain our university because it is so valuable to our community, and it’s a huge success that most people don’t even know about.

But let me move on to research, perhaps the single most misunderstood aspect of the university system. It is important to have a research base because it provides enormous amount of external support for the university. Our university research brings in about six dollars for research for every one dollar the state puts into the university budget. This is a huge and important advantage and deal. The university research system gives opportunities for learning and graduate student achievement and, thus, has to meet a different standard than the teaching aspect of the university. Teachers hold classes, give tests, give grades. It’s all a fairly well understood aspect of being a university. But what actually happens in research?

University research is enormously competitive. And this is where the University of Alaska Fairbanks really excels. Our university in Fairbanks has one of the highest productivity rates for research faculty in the country. What this means is that our faculty produces more research results per research faculty member than almost any other in the country, and we have the additional advantage that much of our research is specifically in the Arctic and subarctic, where we excel because of our location and our past experience. This in turn draws some of the best students, which leads to some of the best further research. But all this requires administrative support and staff to help do the research work, run the experiments, do the fieldwork, get graduate degrees, oversee the graduate theses.

I have one example to show what this means. My example comes from my long experience with Dr. Doug Kane, the now-retired professor of civil engineering who had a long career with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and in over 40 years brought in more than $40 million of research from some of the greatest research establishments in the country, including the National Science Foundation. Dr. Kane’s research career built a huge graduate program and was a major factor in the university’s research in cold climate hydrology, permafrost and aspects of the northern environment, which contribute to understanding climate change. But Dr. Kane is not a multimillionaire from this work. He supported many students and many staff members in creating a knowledge base and a technical experience base for which the university is now renowned. It took money, but that money was extremely well spent.

Our university is a treasure and it keeps on giving. We will only get out of our university what we put into it. 

Rich Seifert is a professor emeritus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He lives in Fairbanks.

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