The university crisis and Alaska politics - Must Read Alaska
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Wednesday, October 23, 2019
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The university crisis and Alaska politics

By FORREST NABORS

I am grateful for the generosity of Must Read Alaska in allowing me to air the views of many of my colleagues on faculty at the University of Alaska Anchorage in recent weeks, regarding the future of our university system.

The appearance of our positions on this venue has exposed the work of the committee, for which I am chair, to charges of partisanship.

From the perspective of some of our friends on the Left, our work is unworthy of consideration merely because our views have been posted by a publication on the Right.

Per its mandate, our committee is solely interested in contributing our part to an improved university system, and is indifferent to partisan interests on this matter. I do not even know for certain the political affiliations of more than one professor on our committee. 

We appreciate the interest of journalists and politicians, left or right, in what we have to say, and we do not reflexively bend our policy views toward one political party or the other. To prove this, allow me to share some bipartisan scolding and then our position on what ought to be done from here. 

The debate over the university system has been badly framed by partisans of two varieties, those who favor indiscriminate cuts on one side, versus those who favor indiscriminate funding on the other. 

To those who favor indiscriminate cuts: 

Regrettably, the university system was designed to depend on annual appropriations from the state government. For example, community colleges in the United States rely mostly on local public funds. In contrast, our community campuses were not set up that way, and the tax bases of their local communities are insufficient to support them.

Another example: None of our three major universities has its own endowment, and therefore all lack a key institution that ought to help them achieve greater financial independence. 

In its present form, our university system is ill-prepared to handle a cut of $135 million in one blow. If this cut to state aid stands, our universities will be seriously damaged. Our best students and faculty will leave the state, weakening our intellectual heft. Programs will be shut down. Our universities might lose accreditation.

If you don’t mind that outcome, and the indiscriminate cutting continues, Alaska will become a cultural wasteland. If you think that is no great loss, check the rolls of great names that emerged from only a few hundred thousand people over the course of one hundred years in ancient Athens: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Themistocles, Aristophanes, Phidias, Pericles, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle and many more. Athens produced those great names in poetry, politics, war, philosophy, history and sculpture because her soil was rich with culture.

Great leaders in life’s many vocations do not grow from barren soil. You enrich that soil with culture, and you do not have vibrant culture in our day without healthy universities. 

Therefore, if our universities are falling short of the mark, we must improve them, not dispense with them.

To those who favor indiscriminate funding:

Money does not solve all problems. While you might feel good about yourself for supporting munificent aid to a line item called “higher education,” that is no guarantee that you will have respectable “higher education” as a result. You will not have done much good, and will probably do harm by wasting the public treasury, if you do not pay attention to how the university system uses those funds and carries out its mission. You will not merit the public virtue that you claim for yourself, if you have done nothing to address warnings of serious problems endemic to the structure of the system that you have aided.

Our committee has done our best to warn the state of Alaska that our system needs serious reform. We have argued that the system should be decentralized for the good of all our universities. (See our May report on FacultySenateReform.com.) 

Therefore, if we do not reform and improve, we expose the universities to ongoing, legitimate criticism, and invite unfair political attacks, leading to harsh policies that weaken us further.

So where are we now?

The indiscriminate cutters won the last round. Their man, Gov. Michael Dunleavy, and his supporters in the legislature wanted to move the state towards a balanced budget – a laudable goal in itself – but did not think that the aftermath of the cut to the university system was their responsibility. They left the enormous problem of what to do next to the Board of Regents. 

The Dunleavy coalition seems to be waking up to the fact that their victory was pyrrhic. They ought to care not only about the effects of a cut of this magnitude, for which they will rightly be blamed, but also about reform. Every perceived failing of the university system after the cut will be pinned on them, whether deserved or not, or in other words, whether the cause of that failing is attributable to the cut or to our unreformed university system. This is the brutal reality of politics.

But now news of the urgency of reforming our university system in the direction of decentralization is entering public discussion. Anybody on either side of the aisle who lays hold of reform can persuade their respective bases that, on the one hand, reform is the price that their indiscriminate funders must pay for accepting some cut, and on the other, that reform is the price that their indiscriminate cutters must pay for reducing the cut. Those arguments will provide political cover for both sides and will also facilitate the enactment of good policy. 

Hopefully, the governor’s office and legislators on both sides of the aisle are pivoting away from their prior positions and are recognizing that a compromise is necessary.

Hopefully, they are seeing that the cut must be moderated, at least, and that the university system must be put on a path of reform in the direction of decentralization. 

If they achieve a compromise including those two key elements, which we urge, I believe that ultimately, the indiscriminate cutters and funders will both have what they want. The universities will depend less on state aid and they will better deliver on the promise of higher education. 

I don’t know if that position pleases one party or the other more. All I can say is that the members of my committee and I believe that this is the right policy for higher education in Alaska.

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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  • Thank you, Forrest, for your delicate dissection of the binary relationship of reform. Know that we, “on the right” are happy to hear reasoned argument and have no habit of shutting an opposing view down because we don’t agree with it. We can only hope it is reciprocated but alas, we both know you’ll get some grief from your colleagues for posting on this forum. Maybe you’ll end up being a racist, who knows?! Either way, your logic is great. Reform hasn’t come when needed. Maybe this savage indiscriminate cutting will be the prompt to expose the need to finally bring financial reform to the table and a compromise can be had. I hope so.

  • Holy false equivalency batman!
    .
    Could you name a member of the “indiscriminate funding” caucus? Otherwise I’ll conclude that it’s straw man designed to create an equivalency where none exists.
    .
    Or perhaps by “indiscriminate funders” you mean that some portion of legislators believes that universities should be run by the faculty and not by politicians? If some lawmakers believe that faculty should enjoy freedom of thought, freedom of expression and should be free to order their own affairs, that’s good. Are you really suggesting that universities do well when they are drawn into political battles? I think they emerge battle scarred.
    .
    While I think it’s appropriate to take your message where it will be read, I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea to use this crisis to advocate for your favored reforms.
    .
    Your points about devastating nature of the cuts are well taken. I would add that not only would the best students and faculty leave, the faculty who would be first to leave are those who are bringing grant monies. Chances are recruiters from other institutions are already making inquiries. These vetoes will cost the state much, much more than 135 million.

  • UAA lost their School of Education accreditation while being run by six figure faculty with generous budgets. So much for faculty running the school. Guess it was time for a politician to step in.

    • And how, exactly, would cutting the university by 40 percent improve this situation?
      .
      Do you understand that accreditation is linked to financial viability? Accrediting agencies need to know that that students will be able to complete their programs. If you care about accreditation you should be on the side of funding the university.

      • All this time I thought loss of accreditation was due to mismanagement and crappy teaching.

        • The UAA Emperor has no clothes, even though he gets a 75k bonus.

        • “All this time I thought loss of accreditation was due to mismanagement and crappy teaching”
          .
          So now you know. The truth is more complex than you assumed. What will you do with that information?
          .
          Your options are 1) change your mind 2) find ways to preserve your original preconceptions
          .
          While you ponder google “cognitive dissonance”

          • Wow, you actually listed 3 options so the truth is more complex than you realized!

          • In the report, CAEP called attention to UAA’s lack of clear or sufficient evidence to show how it met some standards. It also said a “lack of program design” to certain standards prohibited the university’s “ability to develop candidates’ understanding of professional concepts and principles of the education profession.”

            “According to an online Q&A posted by UAA Wednesday, the accrediting body didn’t flag “any deficiencies in the quality of faculty or student experiences, but focused primarily on the quality of management and reporting of evidential data.” ADN.
            hmm nothing about lack of moolah, dinero, sawbucks. If financial viability was a problem the accreditation council didn’t mention it. Adam, YOU LIE!

      • First of all, the cut was only 17% of total spending.

        Second, it wasn’t the Ed School that lost accreditation. Both UAA & UAF hockey teams were summarily ejected from their conferences.

        UA administration reaction to both was a “surprise.”

        Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. And UA has fooled us twice.

        Solution? Take as much of this online as possible like Coursera, Georgia Tech, U of Phoenix, MITx, USNH, etc. Technology is in the process of doing to public education at all levels what Edison did to community bands and community theater troupes in the latter part of the 19th Century. Education here in AK is in the crosshairs of at least a 50% budget cut that is coming like a freight train. Cheers –

        • So that’s your vision. Have students take classes at universities that have no connection to Alaska? Way to encourage brain drain.
          .
          A degree from Phoenix and $5 will get you latte at Starbucks.
          .
          Ever seen the completion rates of the MITx classes? TL;DR — only people who already have degrees complete them. Those classes are for people who already have degree and want to take MIT version.
          .
          Ever heard the Corinthian College story? Full Sail University?

          • At least you can GET a degree at Phoenix U.
            “Your options are 1) change your mind 2) find ways to preserve your original preconceptions”.
            I’m sorry, I think I stepped in something.

        • “A national oversight body has revoked the accreditation of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s teaching degree programs, throwing the viability of hundreds of aspiring teachers’ degrees into question and casting an unflattering light on the university.” ADN, Alaska’s paper of record.

  • It’s past time that the way forward was presented for the University system. All we hear from the University President is the impossibility of the situation. While details are lacking in Mr. Nabor’s summation, he posits that the cuts are too large and that “decentralization” is the answer. If his committee has come up with more specifics and dollar amounts, I think that is needed, since the $135 million in cuts is viewed as “impossible”. Thanks for coming forward. I knew that this committee existed, but nothing has been presented…

  • I empathize with Mr. Nabors’ predicament. However, I believe the problem lies, not with lack of funding, but lack of fiscal direction by the UA administration and board of regents. He says the State of Alaska has been warned that the UA system needs reformed. How about the UA administration and board of regents? They are the ones responsible for said ‘reform’ and they have been for decades. They have ignored that duty and increasingly demanded more largess from the State of Alaska in order to continue their inane and ever increasing spending. Mr. Nabors lays the onus directly on ‘indiscriminate cutters’ and “their man, Governor Michael Dunleavy”,not the UA administrators and regents. How convenient. He talks of ancient civilizations and their great scholars. One can rest assured those ancient scholars did not claim over 20% of their respective government’s spending. If they had, they would not be so fondly remembered. He says compromise is the solution. When and where has UA offered compromise and solutions? The only thing they have offered is criticism and political maneuvering to try and solve their own self created issues. Even to the extent of requesting aid from myriad leftist, outside organizations and Alaskan public entities of dubious value. The UA is not interested in reform or sensible solutions to their claim for public funding. They have offered nothing except political exhortations from their leftist cronies. “Our man, Governor Michael Dunleavy” has done the only thing available. Cut funding from the State of Alaska. If the UA can’t make adjustments to reflect a 17% cut in funding, they need new leadership. Period.

    • The extent and nature of this cut only strengthens the hand of UA Statewide and gives the Regents, whom you criticize, more power than they have ever had.

  • I would disagree that we need a Univ. to have culture. Other than that, good, reasoned article Mr. Nabors. I fear the Board ofRegents and the Pres. will have to change names to get any compromise.

  • Time for the Univ of AK Executives to earn their $$$ and make tough, reasonable and business-like decisions … The same as it is in The Real World.

  • Mr Nabors, I think that I could easily guess the political leanings of the vast majority of your committee and the outcome would not be Republican or conservative.

    Having said that, I am surprised that your committee has so far not been able to exercise any influence on the U of A administration or the Board of Regents since the committee seems to have recognized some of the university’s directional and financial problems.

    The ever expanding U of A state wide system is not just driven by the administration or the wants of the academic staff. Politicians from the Anchorage area wield great power in the legislature because of their numbers and they wanted a big campus with all the accoutrements that go with it. So now we have a UAA campus that far exceeds the original U of A campus at UAF and the UAS campus. Politics also entered the picture when all the thinly populated parts of the state wanted their own campus and when multiple billions of dollars were flowing to the legislature it was easy to spread the wealth. Now hard decisions have to be made, and apparently President Johnson and the Board of Regents do not want to do it unless forced. Governor Dunleavy warned us all with his budget early in the year, the legislature and the U of A did not heed the warning.

  • Very well said and so much to contemplate. I for one am learning a ton just trying to follow all of this. I appreciate time taken by those with better understanding in explaining various facets.

  • It’s been said that Alaska could use the funds that it takes to run the University and send all our kids to top notch schools in the US with full scholarships. While understand that this is not a good solution as we want our brightest to come home. The problem is that there’s no jobs to come home to, no matter if they attend here or elsewhere. We need economic development. My hope is that the legislature would do something (at this time I don’t care anymore what they do just do it and quit piddling around!). And while many libs do not like incentives for development, especially to oil companies, that’s how we get corporations and thus good jobs here. So UAA what have you done to help with economic development? Nothing I’m betting. I hear from students that even the professors don’t show up to classes, even when six mandatory sessions are required of students. All classes are taught online. Professors don’t show up but take a paycheck! That’s not worth any state funding.

  • What am I missing here? For starters what is name of the committee Mr. Nabors is chair of and what are it’s specific goals? And who is responsible for this committee?

  • The point is UAA would have never changed without the “drastic” cuts as they are cold. This got everyone’s attention. Too bad so few on the other side part of this committee.

  • This was an interesting attempt at opening up meaningful dialogue about UA budget cuts, but it falls short of explaining the real problems of the UA system in general.
    1. UA statewide has been a bastion of bureaucratic waste for over four decades. There is so much upper and middle level administrative management, stumbling over itself, each competing for more money for its own programs. This process becomes out of control and irretrievably decisive from within.

    2. The UA satellite programs that cater to the Bush have grown far too large and are a drain on state resources. There is no reason to spend $10’s of millions outside of the three main campuses.

    3. UA wastes money on Arts, Native Studies, Northern Studies, Climate Studies, Hockey, etc. Much of these specialty areas are catered to politics of the day while trying to create a faddish niche for the UA. But these courses do not give back in the form of calcuable revenues to the community and the state. UA needs to re-examine its course studies in terms of creating productive employment for its graduates, not forcing them into poverty and unemployment.

    4. Quit playing politics at the Board of Regents level. Currently, the UA has a head of the regents who’s focus lies with getting Democrats into office and getting funding to advance climate change expenditures. This myopic vision runs counter to the big picture for sustaining UA programs that will put people to work in the private sector. Get the political one-sidedness out of the regents and start looking at return on investment. Forget politics and do what is right for Alaska.

    5. A UA education is by no means a gold standard, nor is it something special because it’s made in Alaska. Alaskans are raised to think that their stuff is a premium just because it’s from Alaska. Complete fallacy and delusional marketing. We have no strong private colleges in Alaska in which to compare against a UA degree. REAL competition is what would make UA strong. Clever, fictional marketing won’t. More politics.

    6. Understand the history of the Dunleavy budget cuts. He told us far in advance that he was going to start eliminating government waste. There is plenty of that at UA. These cuts weren’t proposed by premonition. They were part of the calculus by Dunleavy to restore misspending order and get rid of the nonproductive elements. The large PFD he proposed was to constitutionally align a citizen’s dividend with an economic stimulus that places an exact amount to each qualified resident, regardless if they are a professional, union worker, or unemployed teenager.

    Dunleavy’s vision is not really complicated. He is following through with his campaign promises and cleaning up some corruption and greed along the way. If the Democrats who run UA aren’t happy, then they should find electable candidates. They had none for governor in 2018.

    • It ain’t their fault! Half the plebes that enter their hallowed halls need remedial classes because they haven’t thrown enough money at k through 12.

      • Well, what does that tell you about the QUALITY of education in Alaska? The greedy teacher’s unions and the Democrats that vote to fund them are responsible. Not Dunleavy and his budget cutting. The proof is at exam time. Marla is right. Alaska is not exceptional. Only, that Alaska has long had money to throw away on education.

  • Excellent assessment Marla. And the two below that also.

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