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U Alaska System Consolidation Plans Anger Faculty

A multi-year initiative at the University of Alaska System to streamline individual campus degree offerings to cut expenses shows signs of heading off the rails. The faculty senate recently voted no confidence in university system president Jim Johnsen. The resolution is intended to serve as a "non-binding expression of faculty sentiment," according to recent reporting by the Alaska Dispatch News.

The vote came a year after Johnsen introduced "Strategic Pathways," a plan for revamping the three UA institutions' areas of focus. The idea was to assign "lead campus" responsibilities to each university based on specific areas, to minimize "unnecessary and costly duplication of programs at each campus," an early memo from the president explained. "Instead of a wide range of academic degree programs delivered by each campus, diverse program options will be available from the 'lead campus' to students across the system via e-learning."

For example, in December, the university's Board of Regents voted to consolidate three schools of education into one, located at the Juneau campus, in the state's capital. Under the new structure, faculty in that program, as well as classes and students, would remain at their specific campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. But the school would be led by a single college dean and administration located at the Juneau site.

Other academic programs under the gun are engineering and management, as well as the organizations handling information technology, procurement, research administration and intercollegiate athletics.

The plan isn't intended to affect general education requirements, liberal arts and humanities courses, developmental education classes or career and technical certificate and degree programs, all of which will continue to be available at all campuses. However, the system is expected to revamp its administrative systems and educational technologies to eliminate duplication and redundancy within those areas as well.

In the case of IT, while several applications are managed statewide (such as Banner), the campuses manage their own local area networks, other applications, training and help desk services. Many campus IT employees work in decentralized units. The goal for IT is to reduce the annual IT expense of $65 million by 20 percent. In September 2016, the president said that embedded IT staff would be reduced and a new IT governance council would work on prioritizing services to find additional savings. The system expected changes to include adoption of lean process improvement and seek economies of scale through increased use of outsourcing and cloud services.

The system has suffered declines in public funding for several years, mirroring the state's own struggles with declining oil prices.

The faculty senate resolution, approved 28 to nine, protested that Johnsen hadn't conferred with faculty sufficiently during the process, in spite of earlier promises to keep campus stakeholders informed and give them opportunities for input. The faculty representatives also complained that the university system hadn't yet performed financial analysis in baselining program costs or expenses tied to the proposed changes or those already implemented. Thus, the resolution noted, the system was experiencing high faculty turnover and low faculty morale.

As the Alaska Dispatch reported, faculty senate president David Fitzgerald told those attending the meeting that he wanted to see Johnsen end Strategic Pathways because faculty didn't believe it was fulfilling its promise. "And if he can't do that, step down," Fitzgerald suggested.

Julie Maier, a research scientist for the university in Fairbanks, noted in a comment on the Alaska Dispatch article that while Johnsen included faculty on some teams overseeing the Strategic Pathways work, "they've been hand-picked and not necessarily faculty who know much about the programs that they are evaluating." However, she added, "Faculty don't control the purse strings, but we are the ones who design the programs, teach and mentor the students, and know how best to educate Alaskans. When someone who knows little about the programs is making decisions in a vacuum ... it doesn't create confidence in anyone."

Commenter "Overeducated Narcissist" wished that that faculty from all three campuses could come together to create a plan for a sustainable UA, "but I think the odds of that happening are slim to nil. It will likely require dispassionate leadership from the top to make the painful decisions that are necessary to keep UA viable."

The Board of Regents would probably agree. Chair Gloria O'Neill told the newspaper that although the regents would "discuss the no-confidence vote" at a retreat later this week, the feedback was "systematic of real change and the messy environment that we find ourselves in."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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