There is no question that the University of Alaska (UA) is facing a massive budget crisis. What we have been doing–tinkering with the structure, adding more layers of bureaucracy, reducing programs through faculty attrition, instituting horizontal cuts that create frustrating bottlenecks but don’t lower costs–these have not been working. It’s time for UA to stop applying duct tape bandages in futile attempts to cure the budget crisis. I agree with President James Johnsen that UA needs to make some bold changes.
When I look at Strategic Pathways with an open mind, I recognize some good principles. For example, the idea of reducing redundant programs and integrating physical departments by using distance teaching technologies–this idea I like a lot. The university will have to invest in infrastructure to achieve this, however, and so will the state of Alaska. Our state’s internet system, quite frankly, sucks. We have too few internet providers for them to be competitive with each other, so they just offer the bare minimum and charge way too much money. So along with reducing duplicate programs and replacing them with a single strong, collaboratively-offered program, we will have to work with communication corporations, the state, maybe the feds to improve Alaska’s communication systems. And the UA will have to invest in smarter classrooms, web-conferencing systems, and in resources that will teach us teachers how to best use these resources.
I also agree with Johnsen’s plan to move to a single accreditation model. Today’s students are more mobile, technologically at least, than previous generations. They need to be able to access a cafeteria model of courses and programs, and not have to feel as if their coursework at UAS will not integrate with their coursework at UAF. UA Statewide will need to figure out how to fairly allocate tuition dollars and other resources among the various units, but the idea of a single university spread among multiple physical locations really appeals to the “we don’t give a damn how they do it Outside” Alaskan in me. Additionally, I think the idea of a single accreditation model will strengthen faculty tenure. And if faculty senates and staff councils and other governance organizations are combined, or at least if they collaborate more and better, then faculty and staff will become more empowered. Or, maybe I should say we would become re-empowered.
Our administrative structure is definitely too top-heavy. There are many people, mostly men, who seem to have just floated up to the top of the heap without making any really valuable contributions along the way. But the reduction of the number of administrators by eliminating the chancellor positions—this idea I’m still mulling over. I would have preferred that secondary level chancellor positions be targeted instead. Currently, vice chancellors’ shops, at UAF at least, seem to act as fiefdoms. I worry that there will be a proliferation of these VC-type shops if chancellors go away. On the other hand, I have supreme confidence in UAF’s current Provost, Susan Henrichs. If Provosts were to become the highest level administrators at each campus, I think UAF would be in good shape. I don’t know enough about the Provosts at UAA or UAS.
The idea of concentrating power up at UA Statewide… this I do not like, at least not in the long-term. I have much confidence in our current President, Jim Johnsen. I think I trust him. But some of our past presidents, well, the thought of them having even more power just makes me shiver. In a bad way. Think #bonusgate. Perhaps if we could ensure that there is a balance of power–Faculty Senates having a right of veto on major initiatives, for example, or the opportunity for faculty and staff to annually evaluate the president and Statewide, maybe this would keep Statewide accountable and prevent too much concentration of power in the wrong hands. And we definitely have to increase transparency at Statewide and prevent them from sneaking in policy changes without sufficient governance participation!
I think I like the selection method Johnsen suggested for the next interim chancellor for UAF. If the process works as he outlined, then faculty and staff will actually have MORE input than we have had in the past. Everyone will be able to have input on all of the applicants. Search committees at UAF have become way too political. The old system has not been working for us. Why not try something different? Especially since the next interim chancellor will be very short term. I definitely like the idea that applicants must have worked for UAF in the past. We will already know the warts and beauty of every candidate, with no surprises a few months from now. There is also a measure of safety here in appointing an interim who has the right of return to her/his former position: the interim chancellor won’t be as likely to make bad decisions that piss off colleagues, because s/he will have to go back and work among them after the interim chancellor gig is done.
The crisis calls for bold changes. I don’t like all of the ideas being presented by the BoR and President Johnsen, but I do know that what we have been doing is not working. My main criticism of the University of Alaska, at the system level on down to what’s going on in my college, is a continual sense of being STUCK with no active, collaborative decision-making happening. Administrators just seem to get stuck on one particular issue, e.g. “Title IX” and “safety culture,” when pieces of the sky are falling around us. We can no longer use duct tape to fix things. One of President Johnsen’s strongest leadership qualities is that he will make decisions. He has a vision, he consults with multiple constituencies while not listening to whisperers, and he has bold plans. I appreciate the sense of forward movement that he has started, even when I may not agree with the details.