Workers on the University of Alaska Southeast campus on Friday, July 31, 2020. A proposal to merger UAS with UA Fairbanks will be reviewed by the UA Board of Regents Wednesday. It’s possible they could scrap the whole project, or move ahead. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Workers on the University of Alaska Southeast campus on Friday, July 31, 2020. A proposal to merger UAS with UA Fairbanks will be reviewed by the UA Board of Regents Wednesday. It’s possible they could scrap the whole project, or move ahead. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Regents to review University of Alaska Southeast merger plan

Wednesday’s meeting could change course

The University of Alaska Board of Regents will review the proposal to merge the University of Alaska Southeast with University of Alaska Fairbanks Wednesday, at a Board meeting held electronically.

Because of significant reductions to UA’s budget from both state cuts and COVID-19-related revenue losses, regents voted in early June to conduct a study on the merger with the results due in October. The proposal received strong pushback from some regents as well as political and community leaders from across Southeast and the state. Regents could take a number of actions on merger plans Wednesday afternoon, including scrapping plans for a merger altogether.

The meeting is not a simple yes-or-no vote on the merger study, according to university spokesperson Roberta Graham. The proposal could be amended or the regents could decide to go in a completely different direction, she said.

Even with plans under consideration, the merger is far from a done deal. Regents have only voted to conduct a study, and even if a merger were to be approved there likely wouldn’t be any changes on the ground at UAS for a least a year, Graham said.

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

There currently is no plan, Graham said, making it difficult to forecast when implementation might begin. If a merger were approved it probably wouldn’t take effect until the beginning of Fiscal Year 2022, which starts July 1, 2021, Graham said.

The proposal, which can be found at UA’s website, says the working group will include regents and others chosen by Board of Regents Chair Sheri Buretta to represent key stakeholders with interests in higher education in Southeast Alaska and will include the Chairs of the Faculty Alliance, Staff Alliance, and Coalition of Student Leaders.

“The Board of Regents, utilizing a transparent and inclusive process, intends to inquire and collect data, examine ideas and opportunities, explore potential efficiencies, study the pros and cons of a structural option involving a merger of the University of Alaska Southeast and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, all the while maintaining the unique identity and environment of each institution,” the proposal says.

Despite the decision to move ahead with a study, the proposal received opposition from some regents who called the proposal “outrageous” at the June 4, meeting in which it was first formallyntroduced to the Board. After that decision, and more than 40 academic programs were cut, the faculty union called for former UA President Jim Johnsen to quit. At the time, it had recently been announced Johnsen was the lone finalist in a search for a new University of Wisconsin president.

Faced with mounting criticism, Johnsen withdrew his name from the UW job and announced his resignation June 22.

Johnsen was replaced by former Juneau resident and director of legislative finance Pat Pitney, who’ll serve as interim President for 12-18 months until a permanent replacement can be found.

Strong community outcry and some serious questions raised by the proposal are reasons UAS interim Chancellor Karen Carey said she’s hopeful the decision will be reversed.

“There are issues with accreditation that need to be seriously looked at,” Carey told the Empire Monday in an interview. “I think (the Board of Regents) are starting to understand that, and it won’t save them money for several years.”

An exhaustive plan would have to be drafted, Carey said, showing exactly what would be done with all the assets on the UAS campus, and all the students, staff and faculty. A “teach-out” plan would have to be drafted for students in the middle of finishing their degrees, Carey said, something that is costly and time-consuming. Any plan would eventually have to be submitted to and approved by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the U.S. Department of Education.

[Outgoing UAS chancellor: Merger talk ‘something you should pay attention to’]

“I think what we need to do, we need to do a serious cost analysis, which we haven’t done,” Carey said. “We don’t have as many students in Alaska, we want to make the University of Alaska stronger to get students to stay.”

The proposal was introduced as a motion by Regent Dale Anderson, who lives in Juneau. Anderson said at the time his main goal was the creation of a world-class fisheries school in Juneau regardless of who’s administering it.

“We could create the most incredible fisheries facility in Alaska,” Anderson said at the June 4 meeting, “as a collaboration between Fairbanks and Juneau. We already have a UAF doctoral program housed at UAS. We have such an opportunity on that piece of property to build a world-class fisheries facility.”

Anderson declined to comment, saying he didn’t want to speak before Wednesday’s meeting.

UAS is still on track to begin both in-person and online classes later this month, and no matter the board’s decision Wednesday, UAS will remain as it is for a while, Carey said.

“UAS is open. UAS wouldn’t be closing tomorrow, it’s going to take several years if they went in this direction,” she said.

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

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