Doors on the University of Alaska Southeast Juneau campus are locked and normally public facilities are reserved for university personnel only on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The UA Board of Regents voted to rescind a controversial proposal to merge UAS with UA Fairbanks at their meeting Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean big changes are off the table. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Doors on the University of Alaska Southeast Juneau campus are locked and normally public facilities are reserved for university personnel only on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The UA Board of Regents voted to rescind a controversial proposal to merge UAS with UA Fairbanks at their meeting Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean big changes are off the table. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

UA board changes course on possible merger

Structural changes still an option

The University of Alaska Southeast will remain an independent entity for now.

The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted unanimously Wednesday to rescind a June 4 motion calling for a study of a merger between the UAS and UA Fairbanks.

That doesn’t mean big changes are off the table though, as regents voted for a new resolution which included language keeping restructuring and consolidation options available.

The proposal to merger UAS and UAF had only been a suggestion, said Regent Dale Anderson, who originally introduced the motion at the June 4, meeting. With state cuts and losses related to the coronavirus pandemic, the university’s financial picture was dire, Anderson said, and drastic changes will be needed.

“There’s nothing in the motion today I disagree with,” Anderson said of the new motion.

UA has a fiduciary responsibility to provide higher education to Alaska, Anderson said, and regents have a responsibility to consider the health of the university as a whole. He said a budget shortfall of about $20 million is expected this year.

“Nothing is off the table to get us to those numbers. To say right now we would never consider the consolidation is not a wise decision,” Anderson said, expressing disappointment with community leaders and UAS faculty and staff who politicized the issue.

[University of Alaska board votes for study on University of Alaska Southeast merger]

“When we made this motion, there was an immediate negative response going down a very negative road, there was never a chance to sit down and look at this thing in a positive way,” Anderson said.

The proposal was met with strong pushback from groups across Southeast and the state, and factored into a faculty senate call for then-President Jim Johnsen to resign, which he did in late June.

Regents also expressed opposition to the proposal both at the June 4, meeting and on Wednesday. Regent Darroll Hargrave strongly opposed the proposal at Wednesday’s meeting and said the public feedback he’d received had been overwhelmingly opposed to the merger.

“Through this process, I believe I have received only one letter in support of consolidation from one state administrator in Fairbanks,” Hargrave said.

He received numerous letters of support for maintaining independent universities, which he found very convincing. Hargrave was particularly enamored of a letter from UAS Faculty Senate President Heather Batchelder, which he said articulated the argument well.

Batchelder was present for the meeting, which took place electronically, and said faculty, administration and staff from across the UA system were standing in solidarity with one another to maintain independent universities. Further collaboration between universities could take place within certain programs such as the College of Education and other models of governance could be used to save money.

“Taking a merger off the table will help alleviate a lot of the stress,” Batchelder told the regents. (Faculty) have devoted a lot of time for fighting for the lives of our universities,” she said, time which could have been spent better elsewhere.

[Cautiously optimistic, UAS will open its doors]

After significant back and forth among regents, an amended motion to work to reduce costs across the university system, including the review of structural changes, was made.

The decision to move away from a merger was quickly praised by Juneau’s Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Democrat, who said in a statement Regents had “got it right.”

“UAS is such a valuable part of Alaska’s higher education system, it would be a mistake to dissolve it. Today’s vote sets the board firmly back on the path of looking at the entire University system, to benefit all Alaskans,” Kiehl said.

UAS released its own statement shortly after the announcement, praising the decision.

“UAS values its current, robust, and rich collaborations in Southeast Alaska, and looks forward to expanding as appropriate to the needs of our region and the State,” the school said in a statement. “UAS works closely with its community partners including Sealaska Corporation, Sealaska Heritage Institute, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, First Alaskans Institute, Ketchikan Indian Community, and other Alaska Native organizations. UAS also works with Juneau Economic Development Commission and Southeast Conference to address workforce development needs.”

The final language of the motion was provided to the Empire Wednesday by UA spokesperson Roberta Graham.

“Whereas, the University of Alaska’s state funding has been reduced by $76 million (20%) between FY2014 and FY2020, and an additional $45 million (15%) through FY22;

Whereas, the University has reduced programs and services in response to the state funding cuts, including the loss of 1,727 employees since 2014;

Whereas, the university plans to reduce or discontinue academic programs which will be considered by the Board of Regents at its meeting on June 4-5, 2020;

Whereas, given enrollment declines since 2011, COVID pandemic related impacts, and planned state funding reductions, by FY21 the University’s budget is expected to have a shortfall of $24.8 million, to be covered by one-time funds, and by FY22 a shortfall of between $11.3 million and $36.3 million;

Whereas, while enrollment has declined by 28% across the University since 2010; and

Whereas, the institutions that comprise the University of Alaska are separately accredited by the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities, and the Board of Regents is committed to complying with all accreditation requirements.

The Board or Regents directs the president to work with the chancellors and governance groups to:

1. As the university works to resize to a smaller solid foundation, develop clarity and standards for administrative and instructional costs relative to student enrollment and review structural options;

2. Analyze opportunities and costs associated with a greater presence of fisheries and ocean science programs on the Juneau campus;

3. Redouble efforts on collaboration across the system, program sharing, and partnerships with industry, communities, and tribal organizations; and,

4. Assure the Alaska College of Education has clear roles and responsibilities for program delivery that address the priority of teacher education that are transparent and well-integrated across the system.

The board will regularly receive updates and review progress at upcoming board meetings. This motion is effective August 5, 2020.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.

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