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Independence Day: Time to decentralize University system

By FORREST NABORS
GUEST COLUMNIST

Although $135 million in budget cuts are about to fall on Alaska’s public universities, there is still time to do better for higher education in our state.

The UA system has been heavily dependent on state aid for a long time, and while many states have weaned their university systems off state aid, we have not. Among public university systems, our budget depends on state aid more than almost all of them.

A committee of the UAA Faculty Senate for which I was chair produced a report this spring that identified the cause: The structure of the system. It is overly-centralized, rewards waste and prevents good governance.

Want proof? Despite an Alaskan oil boom and wildly levitating stock market since the 1970s, the UA endowment is a mere $200 million. Compare our endowment with the endowment of the University of Texas system: $26 billion. We were both oil-rich states. Why is ours so low?

Put another way, our endowment is less than one quarter of UA’s annual budget, just shy of $900 million. Yet UA’s bill for deferred maintenance of our infrastructure is $1 billion, five times the size of our endowment. In other words, past UA regents and presidents have left us a paltry endowment and a massive bill. In the private sector, this record would not be tolerated.

In insisting on cuts, Gov. Michael Dunleavy is demonstrating that he and the constituency that elected him have run out of patience, but his shock therapy could kill the patient. A hegira of students and good faculty might leave Alaska, never to return, which will cripple our system for a long time.

A better path is to compromise on the cuts while seriously committing to reforming UA in the direction of decentralization. This will require further legislation, through the capital budget process. By stepping down the cuts over multiple years rather than making one big cut this year, the legislature and governor will give reform a chance to succeed.

When the University of Alaska was one campus in Fairbanks with fewer than 1,000 students, the structure of governance and administration made sense. But now our system covers our state, roughly equal in landmass to that of Mexico, and our students number in the tens of thousands. While the University of Alaska has grown into several universities of Alaska, we never reformed the structure of governance and administration. Central planning, soviet-style, is the result, with all its attendant vices.

Senior leadership of UA defends their centralized model, and seeks to consolidate the university further. The state government is not presented with credible, alternative models of reform. That is because the structure of the system gives UA leadership nearly monopoly control of messaging to the state government, so naturally leadership defends their administrative control. They claim that consolidation will eliminate redundancies and save costs, and these claims charm the ears of conservative budget hawks.

Conservatives in the state government might take a moment to think more about this siren song from UA leadership. They might consider that conservative icon von Hayek rebutted the shopworn claims by central planners more than a half century ago. And they might remember that since Hayek wrote the Road to Serfdom, many governments in many countries tried central planning and found that the bureaucrats never delivered on their promises to achieve greater efficiencies and improve quality.

It is time to apply a bipartisan, American solution to our overly-centralized university system. UAF, UAA and UAS deserve the opportunity to govern and administer themselves. A decentralized UA system will put spending and investment decisions in the hands of the people who run the institutions that deliver education and research. They know best which programs can prosper and which cannot. They can more effectively form private partnership, develop alumni relations and raise funds for their own endowments. They know best their communities and can form boards that know their institutions intimately, a prerequisite for good board governance. The iron rule of results, not manipulable politics, will hold boards and administrators accountable.

In short, more institutional independence, not consolidation, will produce greater efficiency and higher quality education and research. If the legislature and governor can moderate the cut to the appropriations to UA and at the same time, seriously begin to reform UA in the direction of decentralization, our universities will then be in a position to wean ourselves off state aid. We will be stronger and higher education in Alaska, I believe, will be reborn and thrive.

Forrest Nabors is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at UAA, and has served on the UAA Faculty Senate since 2012.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

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  • Interesting read but I have questions. If allowing UAA, UAF, and UAS to continue to have their own leadership, will they continue fighting with UA for general funds every year? Will UAA, UAF, and UAS start allowing credits transfer from one institute to another? Will UAA, UAF, and UAS really and truly quit having all the duplicated degrees? Like UAA, for example. If they focused on Health and Engineering, could they produce more nurses and engineers the state needs, or UAF could lead the way in Arctic Research and science?
    I note that you don’t mention pursuing more online courses or degrees, although more and more younger people are moving towards online learning style. UAA, UAF, or UAS certainly hasn’t tried to partner with the Department of Corrections or the Department of Education, to my knowledge, to allow those in jail, halfway house, or high schoolers to pursue more voc-tech learning. Will UAA’s Community and Technical College finally have more welding, pilots, and medical assistants?
    I don’t know the answers, but it seems to me holding rallies (like UAA at July 9) to #resist instead of rallying to allow people to propose ideas (you know, the actual purpose of a University – to pursue ideas and thoughts) is just the same-old, same-old. Personally, until all those Regents, Chancellors, Assistant Chancellors, Presidents, Vice Presidents, etc etc actually propose something new instead of fighting the Governor (that I didn’t vote for), I have 0% care and 100% support of the $130 budget cut.

    • There’s not really a problem with duplicated degrees as long as the programs are healthy and attracting enough students at each school. Take any city in the lower forty-eight with roughly the same population as Alaska and you will find various state-funded universities with many of the same programs. Furthermore, there are many students in Anchorage who will not go to Juneau or Fairbanks if Anchorage doesn’t have the program. They’ll go Outside or nowhere at all. (A majority of students at UAA are working through college part-time while working full time. If they can’t pursue the program on a part-time basis where they live, they won’t at all.)

      All the schools have moved towards a greater online presence, but it is important to be aware that not all young people want to take classes online. In fact, I find as a professor at UAA that it is older adults with full-time jobs and families that find online classes the most attractive. My small department probably offers ten out of twenty-five sections during a given semester online. There is significant demand for them. However, there are other students who try to avoid taking an online class their entire college career. I’ve certainly learned that online classes do not work for everyone.

      Credits already transfer between all three schools and there is no reason this could not continue with a change in governance. Funding could be according to a formula. And if the schools are able to build their own endowments (because people have a much greater incentive to invest in their school rather than the UA system), the issue of state funding will not pose as much of an existential crisis.

      CTC is training welders, pilots, and medical assistants. Maybe those programs should be expanded. I don’t know the extent of demand. Folks should be aware, however, that some of those programs with significant practical training and equipment requirements may cost considerably more than what the school gets in tuition for those classes, so the university may have an interest in growing the program but, due to budget cuts, the university has not been in a position to grow programs for many years (especially ones that don’t pay for themselves).

      My department was contacted just recently about partnering with Spring Creek Correctional Center. It is a partnership that could lead to teaching a class or two there. But we have had the service portion of our workload cut in anticipation of cuts (note that Dunleavy wants to zero out funding for service, which is the part of faculty work that involves connection to the community). We are not in a position to forge partnerships and take on new responsibilities because of the financial limitations (and they are about to get much worse!).

      The College of Health at UAA is implementing plans to double the number of nurses trained as we speak. The Alaska Middle College is for high school students and has been growing rapidly in the last couple years, but such things will have to go by the wayside with cuts to K-12 and the university.

      Many of the great ideas that you’ve mentioned are being implemented already, though there is much more work to be done. Generally, I’ve found that the most effective partnerships and improvements are ones that begin from the ground up, arising from relationships between faculty and community members, rather than enforced from the top-down. I expect that granting each school greater autonomy would unlock such innovation and creativity. A $130 million dollar cut this year will make it much less likely that UAF and UAA could stand on their own two feet. Hasty consolidation of the two schools will leave them both mutilated and dependent on a Statewide organization that, I expect, will only have to increase in size in order to treat what was once two unique universities with very different histories, cultures, missions, communities, and students as one.

      • Nice to see the College of Health is already trying to expand their nursing degrees and other questions I askes about. And I appreciate your ground-up partnership idea instead of top-down approach. I can support that.
        However, according to the Anchorage Daily News today, UAA alone has 105 degrees. What 105 degrees lead to jobs in Alaska? It’s some of those low-enrolled and/or unneeded degrees that I don’ think need to be duplicated at every campus.
        When Forrest Nabors noted the waste, what did he mean? And now you’re stating that “UAF and UAA” will be “less likely to stand on their own two feet”. It’s seems contradictory positions between Mr. Nabors and you. The entire University, like our public schools, is top-heavy with too many administrators. Cutting a few of those positions, getting rid of some unneeded or low-enrolled degrees, closing some of those 17 campuses, or some of the other waste that Mr. Nabors found would certainly not lead to UAA and UAF not being able to stand on their own feet.
        Maybe, just maybe, if the University quit lobbying for more money (already third highest state-supportive University system in the nation), rallying to #resist, writing op-eds at ADN and other newspapers about how the Sky is Falling, and President Johnson actually do what he said he would do (reduce dependence on state money), more Alaskans, especially us Undeclared voters, might actually care a little more. I’m still in supportive of the budget cut.

        • I assume you know that at Dunleavy’s request the legislature created a separate appropriation for the community campuses and UAS and that he did not veto that appropriation. The cuts are supposed to come from UAF, UAA, and Statewide. Why do people think that cutting the university like this will reduce the proportion of administrators? Who is so naive to think administrators will cut themselves? Reform like that can only happen with the sorts of structural changes that Nabors is recommending.

          Yes, there are 105 programs at UAA. Why don’t you do your due diligence as a good citizen and read through the list of them before supporting a cut that will devastate so many of your fellow Alaskan’s lives? Chancellor Sandeen has just announced that if the cuts go through 40 of the 105 programs will be cut. I have not found Sandeen to be one prone to hyperbole and she is probably just relaying Johnsen’s plan (which will be designed to preserve UAF). Do you have any idea how many students and faculty that represents? I am pretty confident that means the College of Arts and Sciences (which has 20 major programs) and the College of Business will be cut, because College of Health and College of Engineering have been identified as safe.

          Without major granting departments teaching the sciences, math, English, philosophy, history, etc., students will come away with a subpar education. In the 21st century it is the soft skills you learn in classes that are not direct job training, like philosophy, history, math, etc., that enable people to succeed in a variety of work environments and make big career changes later in life. And that is increasingly the norm. Philosophy, which I teach, is offered as a common example of a useless major. But even if you think going to college is all about the money, check out how much philosophy majors by the middle of their work careers make compared to nurses, K-12 teachers, technicians of various sorts, etc.

        • UAF and UAA through consolidation of their colleges will each be half of a university if the $135 million cut goes through. That’s what I mean when I say they will be less in a position to stand on their own two feet. They will be more dependent on Statewide to coordinate each half, which will only make the cost of administration relative to instruction increase. Johnsen’s solution to reducing dependence on state money is consolidation. It’s not innovative and does not form community partnerships that could fund endowments, etc. That’s Nabors whole point. As long as you have this structure you won’t get the buy-in and investment from the local communities that help universities be more independent. Other states are realizing this. Oregon just set it’s schools free from its Statewide system. Alaska should do the same, but I fear it’s now or never (or at least not for decades to come).

  • For Mr. Nabors’ “grand plan” to work, the UA administration, as a whole, would need to reverse their leftist/socialist agendas. That is not going to happen and Governor Dunleavy knows it. He is instituting the only remedy available to Alaska that has any chance at all. The mishandling of governance at UA is not new. It has been ongoing and worsening for decades. I was a freshman at UAF when I was 17 years old, with a full, four year scholarship. It took me one semester to figure out the university was not for me. I approached the Dean and asked her if I could transfer my scholarship to a different university. She said no, which I later found out was untrue. I departed UAF and never looked back. Probably the best decision I ever made. That was a long time ago. Since then, a steady deterioration has exponentially occurred. Now we have this monster that is not even accredited and spends far more than it’s fair share of Alaska’s hard earned money. For what? Huge salaries and benefits, redundant everything, socialist studies and instructors, campuses everywhere, with none accredited, and the list goes on. Congratulate Governor Dunleavy on his approach to remedy the intolerable situation and move on.

    • All the universities are accredited. You may be referring to the UAA School of Ed, which lost CAEP accreditation last year. CAEP accreditation is a special professional accreditation that some education programs in the country seek to have. It is required for educational programs in Alaska for teacher certification by the Alaska Department of Education.

      I’ve heard your basic argument many times in the past weeks: there are problems, so let’s fix them by eliminating the universities. This is not hyperbole on my part. What we are talking about is a cut in state funding in a single year that is proportionally larger than any state has leveled against its public university system since 2008 (except for Arizona, which over the past 10 years has cut roughly 55.7% of its state funding). And it is the largest drop in state funding per student of any state since 2008. If you want to fact check this, take a look at “Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity,” an online report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

      I’d invite you to acquaint yourself with the good that is being accomplished despite the problems and to fully understand how much Alaskan students will be limited in their educational opportunities if these cuts go through. I am all for reform but this will not bring about reform and I predict that it will do very little to reduce the cost of administration relative to instruction. In fact, I think it will drive up the cost of administration as folks on the ground get cut.

  • Totally agree with post from S. Evans. Except I voted for the Governor. He’s the only one pushing back against the endless waste of our higher education money pit. Show me something, anything, other than “we need more money, and LOTS of it.” I support the budget cut, totally. I only wish it was a deeper cut. If centralization hasn’t worked, why don’t all of your PHDs do a little brainstorming and try something different? The BOR needs to change out the president and try a new approach.

  • There needs to be serious cuts, there should have been serious cuts years ago. Johnsen said it best when he said he didn’t plan on these cuts, why didn’t he? The Governor sent his budget out and it had very clear cuts to UA, Johnsen even went to the legislature and said he wasn’t negotiating…clearly he should have been. If the guy in charge didn’t think that the cuts could happen it’s past time to put a new guy or gal in charge, one who takes his or her job seriously. Asking for more money now, and you promise you will do better is too little too late. UA is a land grant college, use the lands you were granted. Adapt to the new reality of being fiscally responsible, something that should have been done a long long time ago and you wouldn’t be in the mess that you’ve made.

  • There’s not really a problem with duplicated degrees as long as the programs are healthy and attracting enough students at each school. Take any city in the lower forty-eight with roughly the same population as Alaska and you will find various state-funded universities with many of the same programs. Furthermore, there are many students in Anchorage who will not go to Juneau or Fairbanks if Anchorage doesn’t have the program. They’ll go Outside or nowhere at all. (A majority of students at UAA are working through college part-time while working full time. If they can’t pursue the program on a part-time basis where they live, they won’t at all.)

    All the schools have moved towards a greater online presence, but it is important to be aware that not all young people want to take classes online. In fact, I find as a professor at UAA that it is older adults with full-time jobs and families that find online classes the most attractive. My small department probably offers ten out of twenty-five sections during a given semester online. There is significant demand for them. However, there are other students who try to avoid taking an online class their entire college career. I’ve certainly learned that online classes do not work for everyone.

    Credits already transfer between all three schools and there is no reason this could not continue with a change in governance. Funding could be according to a formula. And if the schools are able to build their own endowments (because people have a much greater incentive to invest in their school rather than the UA system), the issue of state funding will not pose as much of an existential crisis.

    CTC is training welders, pilots, and medical assistants. Maybe those programs should be expanded. I don’t know the extent of demand. Folks should be aware, however, that some of those programs with significant practical training and equipment requirements may cost considerably more than what the school gets in tuition for those classes, so the university may have an interest in growing the program but, due to budget cuts, the university has not been in a position to grow programs for many years (especially ones that don’t pay for themselves).

    My department was contacted just recently about partnering with Spring Creek Correctional Center. It is a partnership that could lead to teaching a class or two there. But we have had the service portion of our workload cut in anticipation of cuts (note that Dunleavy wants to zero out funding for service, which is the part of faculty work that involves connection to the community). We are not in a position to forge partnerships and take on new responsibilities because of the financial limitations (and they are about to get much worse!).

    The College of Health at UAA is implementing plans to double the number of nurses trained as we speak. The Alaska Middle College is for high school students and has been growing rapidly in the last couple years, but such things will have to go by the wayside with cuts to K-12 and the university.

    Many of the great ideas that you’ve mentioned are being implemented already, though there is much more work to be done. Generally, I’ve found that the most effective partnerships and improvements are ones that begin from the ground up, arising from relationships between faculty and community members, rather than enforced from the top-down. I expect that granting each school greater autonomy would unlock such innovation and creativity. A $130 million dollar cut this year will make it much less likely that UAF and UAA could stand on their own two feet. Hasty consolidation of the two schools will leave them both mutilated and dependent on a Statewide organization that, I expect, will only have to increase in size in order to treat what was once two unique universities with very different histories, cultures, missions, communities, and students as one entity.

  • Our endowment is less than 1% or UT mainly because, though we are both oil-rich states, we are a colony and they are not. Most of the wealth created here leaves immediately or eventually. Also, less than 5% of the land in TX is owned by the government. AK is at the other end of the spectrum. Finally UT is a lot older, so they have had a chance to build an endowment.

  • Which city in the lower 48 with 700,000-800,000 people has 3 public universities, a couple private universities, and 17 community colleges? Many cities of that size do not even have 1 public university let alone 3, let’s get real shall we.

    • Yes. Let’s. In the US, there is not a single city with a population between 500k and 700k that does not have at least one major public university. If we include 2-year colleges, these cities on average have 2.25 public institutions of higher education and about 6-10 private universities (and some of these are very large). Many of these cities have large public universities just outside the city limits, which I did not include. Also, I did not count the branch campuses or university centers of major public universities based outside the city limits. I did not include cities like Boston, Oakland, Kansas City, and Miami that are a part of much larger metropolitan areas. (There are only three cities with populations of 700-800k–Seattle, D.C., and Denver. Since they all belong to larger metropolitan areas I focused on cities in the 500-700k range.)

      Even so, on average over 44,000 students are taught in public institutions in the 19 cities I included. By comparison, in 2018, UAF, UAA, and UAS (and their community campuses) served 26,641 students (full and part-time) and APU, ACC, and ABC, only 626. So, we don’t have a problem with too many universities relative to our population. As a state we rank 28th for the number of adults with bachelors degrees. I assume you know about the benefits to communities that have been shown to come when more people have college educations (and, no, I don’t think college is for everyone).

      Finally, we don’t have 17 community colleges. “Community campus” sounds like “community college” but it’s not the same thing. Community colleges are independent institutions that have their own administration and governance and are often quite large. That is not the case with all but a few of our community campuses, which are simply extensions of the three main campuses. It’s no surprise that we need more extensions to serve rural Alaskans in their communities than you might in a city of the same size, though I should note that some community colleges in these cities have as many as ten extension sites (and as I mentioned there are usually a number of university centers and branch campuses).

    • The city/state comparison has its limitations. So consider this instead. The average population of the four states closest in size to Alaska (Wyoming, Vermont, South Dakota, and North Dakota) is 712k. That’s a little smaller than Alaska’s population.

      How many public universities like UAF, UAA, and UAS do these states each support on average? Five.

      This number does not include many community colleges, branch campuses, extension sites, etc.

      • The state comparison is probably a little better, since as you previously noted most cities in the population range have large supporting/surrounding metro areas. It is telling that in the 19 cities you made a passing reference to, the student enrollment is so much higher than enrollment here. The biggest difference between those states with similar populations is the area served, we cover much more area. Perhaps if all of those seeking higher education relocated to the population center, similar how they do in the cities and the states you mentioned, costs would also drop and substantially so.

  • Steve – Search “Colorado Springs.” The University of Colorado- Colorado Springs, US Air Force Academy, Colorado College, Colorado Christian University, Nazarene University, University of Southern Colorado (30 minutes away), University of Phoenix, Pikes Peak Community College (multiple campuses) and numerous others. Those must all be a waste of money as they are less than the many opportunities one hour away in Denver. OR…. that very conservative city still values education. I will guess the latter.

    • Almost 5 million people live within 75 miles of Denver and almost 4 million live within 75 miles of Colorado Springs. If we were to cast a net 500 miles wide from Anchorage we would catch a little over 600,000 people.

      http://www.statsamerica.org/radius/big.aspx

  • CUT – that’s the only thing the only thing thing the politbureau undesrtands. CUT

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