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Sunday, December 15, 2019
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University of Alaska: A culture of coverup and failure

By MAE MARSH

When…” asked the crisis management consultant, “are you going to address your culture of failure and cover-up?”

That question was asked back in 2015 when UA (specifically UAF) went public with the Title IX crisis.

The crisis was preceded by the LARS federal fine of $127,000 in the die-off of 12 musk oxen, and by the crisis involving an injection of an unauthorized solution in the medical assistant program.

More recent, UA crisis management includes the loss of the UAA education program accreditation when it was clear three years prior that the changes were essential, and the federal lawsuit based on sexual harassment in the UAA archaeology program.

Now UA is in yet another crisis – the budget crisis.  The question at hand…is this a crisis or just another example of an organizational culture that has an inability to listen, to see, and to take calculated risks to address gaps before they create failure and another crisis to manage.

So, I am taking this opportunity to uncover a UA fundamental issue and make a recommendation.

I am a retired federal civil servant.  I had a 27-year career with the federal government, serving in Maryland, Washington, Germany, The Netherlands, and for Alaska, I was a Budget Analyst, a Program Analyst, and the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Manager for Forts Wainwright, Greely, and Richardson.  My last assignment with the feds was in Virginia as a GS-14 Deputy Director of Equal Opportunity at the agency level.  I have served as an advisor to top leaders and know sound leadership when I see it.  After retiring, I returned home to Fairbanks when I was selected to serve as the UAF Director of Diversity & Equal Opportunity and their Title IX Coordinator.

In my professional opinion, the glaring issue for UA is lack of leadership.

It is common knowledge that oil revenues are down.  We have known that for quite a while.  In order to keep afloat, just like the federal government “changed the color” of our social security contributions and used those funds to pay for government, under the Walker administration our Alaskan Legislators “changed the color” of PFD money and used it to fund our state government. Now we are questioning that tactic.

Even if the Dunleavy line items vetos are reversed and we use the PFD funds towards government rather than for their original purpose – we have to ask, is that wise, legal, ethical, and sustainable?  I understand that every dollar spent by the state is important to someone – the young, the homeless, the employee, the student – but can we sustain our current level of spending?

I am disappointed with UA President Jim Johnsen’s response to the reductions.  Johnsen referred to the $135 million funding reduction as “draconian cuts” thus indicating the reduction is harsh, severe, or too restrictive.  Further, he engaged in cantankerous behavior by prompting employees, students, and citizens to contact legislative representatives demanding the reinstatement of the funding.

Johnsen responded with angst and victimhood rather than leadership.

While employed at UA, I went to Johnsen with a sound strategy to get into Title IX compliance prior to the finalization of the federal review. Johnsen dismissed me and implanted an individual that was not trained in Title IX to be his direct advisor.  Johnsen did not hear me, he did not close the gaps, and he did not guide the institution to compliance. Ultimately, it took the 2017 federal settlement agreement, which mirrored my 2014 plan, before UA finally complied.

The pending $135 million reduction is an excellent example of leadership not hearing and not responding with courageous action.  Yes, this reduction may be unprecedented, however, it ultimately puts Alaska more in alignment with the level of support provided by states across the country.  The average state support to a university is 25% but according to Moody’s Investor’s Service, in 2015 UA was receiving 50 percent.  That’s double the national average.

On June 4, 2015, a warning shot was fired over UA’s bow when Moody’s revised the UA credit rating outlook to ‘negative’ stating:

The outlook revision to negative is based on University of Alaska’s (UA) high reliance on the State of Alaska (Aaa negative) for operating and capital support, with expected increased pressure on university operations as the state copes with lower revenues from the oil production and moderates funding.”

The inability to sustain the high level of funding to UA is and has been a well-known fact and the reductions have been looming since 2015.  UA’s high reliance on the state ultimately weakens their credit rating and if the reductions are not implemented this year, they will continue to haunt the institution. More state money is not the answer. Sound leadership is needed and the message is clear: UA can come out of this a stronger institution by reducing their dependence on the state.

During my tenure between 2012 and 2016, almost annually, plans were developed to implement reductions. Some became a reality and some were shelved. Planning for program reductions are complicated by the lead time necessary to take care of currently enrolled students. I only hope UA has been proactive in taking the forward-thinking steps necessary to care for students and that they stand ready to take the reductions, if not this year, then next year. It will be painful but there will also be benefits.

Which brings me back to my opening thesis regarding the UA culture.

The UA culture was described as a “culture of failure and cover-up” by their crisis management consultant. He asked why UA was constantly in crisis management, why they go from crisis to crisis and fail to address the root cause.

I have an observation to share. In my professional opinion, the root cause and the biggest impediment to improving the culture and subsequently improving leadership within the UA system is the overreaching power and authority of their General Counsel.

The fact that the General Counsel has overreaching tentacles down into the organization was affirmed to me when GC hired an attorney to investigate Title IX failures.  The investigator told me organizational lawyers typically provide advice and then leadership decides if they will or will not follow the advice – which is not the case for UA.  That was also my experience working for the federal government – the lawyers are legal advisors and do not direct.  However, in the UA system, to question, to oppose, or to not follow General Counsel’s “advice” is a career death sentence. Survival in the UA system requires acquiescence to the General Counsel’s power and control.

Individuals who do not follow the dictates of General Counsel are discredited, marginalized, and pushed out. I saw an Associate General Counsel lie to the Board of Regents to dishonor a chancellor, apply pressure, and eventually constructively discharge him.   I saw a coworker who voiced discrimination by stating that decisions were “falling out on gender lines” called a “terrorist” by an Associate General Counsel.

When called out on the inappropriateness of his labeling and name-calling, he revised his statement and claimed he said the coworker’s behavior was “terrorist-like”.  This coworker was also subsequently ‘moved on’.

As UAF’s Title IX Coordinator, I also experienced the General Counsel’s wrath.  Federal guidance states, “The Title IX coordinator’s role should be independent to avoid any potential conflicts of interest” and further identifies, “designating a disciplinary board member, general counsel, dean of students, superintendent, principal, or athletics director as the Title IX coordinator may pose a conflict of interest.” (bold print added by me).

At UA, Title IX authority was usurped and the AGC became the self-appointed “Title IX Czar”.  I pushed back and my chancellor warned me to expect a “counter-attack.”  Below are a few tactics that ensued. The General Counsel’s office…

  • Threatened to go to the BOR and report that UAF didn’t have a “viable program” when UAF questioned the General Counsel’s guidance.
  • Interfered in investigations and the campus sanctioning process.
  • Made calls to supervisors and applied pressure when directors pushed back or questioned the General Counsel’s interference.
  • Perpetuated a falsehood that UAF Title IX didn’t talk to or keep the General Counsel informed.
  • Removed cases from UAF and gave them to other campuses to order to maintain control.In one case, UAF was pressured to complete a report over a three-day weekend because the General Counsel said it was urgent. The case was subsequently moved to another campus where they were allowed months to finalize the case.
  • Drug their feet on updating policy.
  • Created disruption and conflict by providing different and opposing advice to UAF staff members.
  • Conscripted the newly arrived interim chancellor by labeling UAF Title IX as “uncooperative” and “resistant” before he had a chance to meet the team or review the program.
  • Heightened scrutiny and put UAF on the front line of publically confessing failures while the other campuses also had failures but were not compelled to go public.
  • Referred to UAF’s fact-based reports as “a creative work of fiction”.
  • Overused, abused and hid behind attorney-client privilege. At the previously mentioned crisis management meeting, the UA’s Associate General Counsel explained attorney-client privilege and the consultant rolled his eyes and responded, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard it explained like that.”
  • Violated my rights by refusing to give permission for a Department of Education investigator to interview me without the Associate General Counsel’s presence. The Associate General Counsel claimed I was his client and justified the interference with the pretext that he had to oversee the interview to ensure I provided “accurate and truthful answers” and because he had to be present to “deal with legal issues such as privilege.”  The preceding months I was put in public as the Title IX face of failure and had successfully provided “accurate and truthful answers” during the public disclosure and had maintained their “privilege”.  Ultimately, the issue of Associate General Counsel’s presence in my interview was pushed up through the federal legal channels and the interview was later conducted without the Associate General Counsel’s presence.

What I have been exploring are the larger, more public failures but the culture starts with small failures that are not corrected and put on the right path.

It starts with things like not holding non-performers accountable because of fear of a lawsuit, like appointing untrained individuals to critical roles, like continuing a program that has not graduated a student in six years, like athletic leadership taking off to a conference in Florida following a report of a Title IX violation and leaving a stunned and traumatized team unaided. Or like asking why Title IX couldn’t just tell the feds that UA couldn’t get into compliance due to budget constraints when the feds contribute millions of dollars annually to the institution. Or the Associate General Counsel  placating an unruly professor by buying the professor a beer and subsequently the professor was set up to deliver a Title IX presentation to the Board of Regents, an opportunity not afforded to the coordinators with the responsibility for Title IX.

These are only some of the small failures that are not addressed due to the risk-averse and retaliatory environment.

The bottom line is that the General Counsel’s interloping is damaging to the UA culture and a major contributor in failures.  Their overreach hinders appropriate action, creates adversarial relationships, and strangles progress. It results in corruption and violation of a basic organizational management principle – having defined roles.

The defined role of the General Counsel is to be an adviser, to dig into detail, to warn of legal risk, and to protect the institution using adversarial tactics to win.  To reduce costs, some universities contract with one local legal firm to provide as-needed services, therefore, they do not have the expense of maintaining their own legal staff and they do not have issues of interference.

At UA, not only does the General Counsel’s encroachment harm the university, it also impacts off-campus  Because the General Counsel mismanages their time, they end up farming-out work to the state’s best lawyers and legal firms for a fee – which increases costs.  This practice, ultimately limits legal representation to individuals that believe they have been harmed by UA.  The state’s best lawyers serve UA and it would be a conflict of interest for them to take a UA employee or student as a client.

The defined role of a leader is to build the vision, take calculated risk, and to collaborate and build strong teams to win. Leaders are the ones that conduct business, solve problems, make decisions, and manage change.  With the UA culture of GC usurping leader’s rights and roles, there is a resulting culture of fear, indecision, and ultimately, failure and cover-up.

I believe in education and agree that Alaska needs a strong university. But to build UA Strong, it will take more than state money added to their budget. It will take a restructure of power, as well as, a fundamental change in who leads and how they lead.  That change must include taking the reins out of the hands of General Counsel and giving the reins back to leaders.

UA Strong!

Mae Marsh is the former UAF director of Diversity & Equal Opportunity, and Title IX coordinator.

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Latest comments

  • Jim Johnsen is not the only UAF leader who has failed. It appears that Marsh has displayed questionable judgement as well.

    https://reason.com/2016/08/03/this-uaf-student-was-acquitted-of-rape-a/

    • Wow, that’s all you’ve got. A portion of a sentence out of context, standing orphan and unsupported by any other information at all. Just a poor attempt at a slur. Don’t you see that kind of muckraking elsewhere and feel disdain for it? Sheesh………
      And no rebuttal…at…all.
      If not sad, it would be truly humorous.

    • I don’t see any question about the rape charge. You like putting up articles that are one sided for some rich kid that thinks he can take what he wants when he wants. Why didn’t you put the second story to came up where they showed that he was dismissed from the college I am why he was dismissed from the college. I’m sorry Mr. Rep found out the hard way that being Rich does not guarantee you that you can do what you want when you want, Something his parents should have instilled in him when he was young. You sound like someone who is very heartbroken that the Rich kid didn’t get his way so sorry about that but Ms Marsh did but she felt was right and I agree with her 100%.. And I love your little rich kids line to those motherfuckers know who they’re messing with at sounds like someone who’s not guilty

  • Many thanks, Ms. Marsh, for a well-written article, a credit to you and your years of experience.

    • The author is a bored, retired, do nothing civil servant,who gets a very generous retirement critiquing other peoples efforts.

      • No, she is someone who stands up for what she believes in. But I know people don’t understand that. Ms. Marsh is not in it for anything else but trying to show what a total failure this has been. Or maybe I’m critiquing you too much and this ridiculous comment.

  • Hanging an argument on the Title IX boondoggle against a university is generally a social justice warrior move. Screwing up Title IX sounds like a good start for turning higher education around to me.

  • Confronting a politically powerful institution in the court of public opinion requires extraordinary individual courage. (Especially one that apparently hasn’t overcome its “culture of failure and cover up” if Mr. Brown’s comment is any indication.)

  • Sounds like a bunch of middle school political bickering, immature and unprofessional. The only reason a person worked there was because the money was good and you could get by without doing your job very well. House cleaning is in order.

  • Thank you Ms. Marsh. Your courage and dedication to the institution and not to a failed leadership is appreciated. The slurs of the incompetent against you are not worth my attention. It is past time for the Regents, the General Counsel and the UA President to go.

  • This reads more like professional jealousy then a case for cutting a budget. I wonder what the other side of the story is?

  • Amazing, even if this article is one sided, how did the General Counsel come into the leadership role for UAF? What happened to the Chancellor and the system President are they no longer viable leaders?

    • It is highly likely that Marsh violated a student’s rights. She tried to expel a male student who was later acquitted of sexual assault. (There’s a link to the story in another comment above.) Marsh didn’t follow the proper procedures, not even the ones outlined in Title IX, even though she was UAF’s Title IX coordinator. I am sure this is why General Counsel (a lawyer) was involved and not higher-ups. I’m also sure that’s why Marsh is writing this piece for MustReadAlaska; it’s payback to UAF for the way she ruined her own career with her own dubious professional choices.

  • If I were in charge, and couldn’t graduate more than 8 percent in a 4 year span, or even 31 percent after 7 years, I think I would step down on my own…..but that’s me.

  • All the while, costing PFD recipients $52,000 a year per student.

  • Which program hasn’t graduated a student in six years? Is that failure specific to UAF, or all of UA?

    • Uaa graduates 8 percent of all students in a 4 year program. 32 percent if students stick around for 7 years. Not much a return on our money.

  • Governor Dunleavy: PULL THE PLUG on the UA budget. My degree from UAF isn’t worth squat! The UA is an endless black hole for waste and political correctness. Exorbitant wages for Lefties who act like grade school children. Budget the sob(s) out of existence Dunleavy. Drain the effing swamp.

    • Your degree from which department? Jere

  • Cheese with your wine?

  • Ridiculously partisan.

    I found this particular passage to be particularly unhinged: “It is common knowledge that oil revenues are down. We have known that for quite a while. In order to keep afloat, just like the federal government “changed the color” of our social security contributions and used those funds to pay for government, under the Walker administration our Alaskan Legislators “changed the color” of PFD money and used it to fund our state government. Now we are questioning that tactic.”

    Selling more GOP lies. Although its the only real bit that tries to look at the bigger picture.

    The rest of the article reads like a laundry list of gripes about one particular aspect of the UA system. Nothing is perfect, and using anecdotes to justify spending cuts is silly. Plain and simple.

  • Mae Marsh jumped from job to job throughout her life. While at UAF, she often talked trash about her previous employers and about fleeing past jobs with her “hair on fire.” Now she is doing the same about her short time at UAF. Believe nothing that she says in this article.

  • I had several disgruntled employees like Ms. Marsh in my career who made me wish I had stayed in commercial fishing.

  • The UA swamp needs to be drained.

  • I think I must be the “unruly professor” Marsh mentions. Just to clarify, I paid for my own beer.

  • Madam Clearly you took the time to gather your thoughts and put them together.

    Right leaning legislative and executive branches have been nortoriously republican for the last what 20 years?

    Maybe time for some new leadership in state government that values the university.

  • College of sniveling Liberal Arts at UAF. Masters and JD from back East.

  • This seems to coming from someone who feels underappreciated by Johnsen and is critical of Statewide and UAF. Statewide does have a lot of money, power, and control. The original veto only makes the situation worse, giving Statewide more power, control, and relative resources. The new 2 year OMB plan with proposed cuts to specific areas seems like the start of a more thoughtful approach to reducing the administrative bloat without killing public higher education in Alaska.

  • Also, the stats about graduation rates are exhibit 1 of Mark Twain’s quip lies, damned lies, and statistics. Unlike other states, Alaska doesn’t have a community college system. The University is open enrollment which means anyone who wants to take a few courses can, but they never graduate. Any student who has the willpower and work ethic to succeed can get a high quality degree from a UA campus, one proof is acceptance into good graduate programs outside Alaska, standardized test scores (eg gre), and success in landing a job. UA students do remarkably well in these categories. It would be more disconcerting if graduation rates were significantly higher than the national average, given UA is an open enrollment system, wouldn’t it?

  • The UA system has provided great leaders in our community. My UAF daughters are two of these leaders.
    Not sure of the Political Angle of the Article, but I am certain that UA system needs a overhaul. Poor leadership over decades has created a culture of aloofness and untouchable budgets.
    Finally we have a Leader in Dunleavy who is willing to tell the truth.

  • I attended UAA for a Renewable Energy Certificate for 2 years and completed the program. It was not all that good and I often knew more than the instructors based on my hands on experience. Fast forward 4 years to a time where I needed employees for my business and I called UAA to see if I would be able to talk to any of the students going through the program to perhaps interview them for jobs. I was not able to talk to any students, but they offered me a class I could take for about $2,500 that I really did not need.

    Way to help out your graduates, and help current students get a job in a growing field.

  • When you’re ready to throw education and research overboard for a few extra bucks in your pocket, you know that you have officially joined the ranks of the New Trump Republicans. Who else could be so selfish and short sighted? News flash, kids: you ARE the swamp.

  • This very honest and revealing assessment of UA culture is written by an extraordinarily qualified professional who was willing to put herself on the line to address institutional needs. After a career in higher education of 30+ years and working at multiple institutions (including UAF for 24), I echo the sentiments that are expressed, particularly regarding the role of general counsel, in management of the university. When asked why I chose to retire early and leave a place I loved, my response has consistently been that we (I still have my UAF and UA hat on!) are more interested in potential litigation concerns than in actual education.

    I can only hope that those reading this will take to heart the critical issues that are noted. In particular, beware of the phrase, “we are General Counsel, and we are here to assist you”.

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