University of Alaska sacrifices the queen

University of Alaska logoThe University of Alaska system president announced the end of several academic programs, offering another example of what I’ve been calling the queen sacrifice.  This is when an academic institution, facing major challenges, cuts into the core of a campus.

In Alaska’s case, programs to be cut include: “a teacher mentoring program… a program with the University of Washington to train Alaskans to become doctors [and] a new veterinary degree partnership.”

On top of that,

More cuts will likely be announced in the weeks ahead. UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers will give a report today on efforts to prioritize dozens of programs for possible elimination or reduction.

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What’s the reason for these cuts?  UA is state-funded, and the state is “facing a $3.5 billion deficit.”  That seems to be due to the fall of the price on oil, taxes on which play a key role in Alaska’s state revenue.

Worse, these financial and program cuts are likely to continue: “‘We see nothing to suggest that ’17 is going to be any better,’ said Gamble, who met with regents at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim Campus in Bethel.”

Rural branch campuses expect more cuts to their own budgets.

According to the UA news site, “Chancellors Rogers and Pugh updated the board on program prioritization efforts underway at UAF and UAS in preparation for difficult financial times ahead”. Indeed.

The stress of these cuts seems to have helped drive one UA campus chancellor into retirement.

What does this tell us about higher education?  There are some local particulars, like the oil tax angle.  But that cause neatly coincides with the effect felt in many states, of dropping state spending on education.

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The program selection is unusual.

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 I’m not sure why teacher preparation lost out, unless Alaska’s K-12 schools are seeing serious drops in student numbers.  The medical and veterinary cuts don’t make much sense, as demand for medical services isn’t declining.

Let’s see what those new programs cuts target, and share our sympathies for the poor faculty, staff, and students.

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(thanks to Chris Lott for providing on the ground information for this post)

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7 Responses to University of Alaska sacrifices the queen

  1. kerr63 says:

    In today’s connected world, it surprises me that programs are cut before expensive satellite and regional campuses. Distance learning and eLearning could be used to support learners at a distance. Yes, it would be downsizing rather than cutting completely, but ultimately, given the trajectory, won’t that happen anyway? Then they’ve lost the programs, the people, and the regionals.

    • That’s a good point, kerr63.
      I’m not expert on Alaskan politics, so please take this with a grain of salt. Perhaps they worry that many branch campus students aren’t well skilled in taking online classes. Or they have legal/policy requirements in place.

  2. Not sure I can answer the question fully here, but as an Alaskan by birth (and for much of my life), as well as a former student at the Anchorage campus, I might have some insight. For much of the state decent sufficient bandwidth to run real distance-learning applications is still not a given. In addition some of the satellites are seen as playing an important mentoring role for rural communities, which often have a greater cultural difference from “mainstream” America than you would find between most of the U.S. and Germany or France. As such the idea of distance education serving the needs of rural students in Alaska is particularly problematic.

    There are a lot of particular characteristics of the UA system (including HUGE geographical spreads, low population, lack of transportation and infrastructure, major cultural divides, and a very high cost of living—almost on par with Hawaii—that would be difficult for many faculty to deal with on available salaries) that are particularly challenging and have to be considered. I can see cutting the doctor and veterinary partnerships since the system is not particularly well equipped for them in the first place and I think students interested in that area would probably be better served by going out of state anyway. (Although I don’t know the particularities of the those partnerships, I suspect that they may have been marginal in the first place, and so a fairly apparent target for cost cutting.)

    The dependance of the state economy on oil really leads to a boom and bust economic cycle in the state, much more than even in other oil-rich states (with the exception, perhaps, of the Dakotas), and there is a tendency to really add a lot of programs when the revenue is rolling in that cannot survive when the bottom falls out. (You can see how this works in the popularity of Sarah Palin in the State: she was governor at a time of rising oil prices, so she never had to make any hard choices. It’s easy to be popular when you don’t really have to tell anyone no.)

  3. Bandwidth remains a significant issue for reaching the students served most by rural campuses. Note that the list of programs aren’t those being cut, but *potential* cuts. And there are actually multiple possibilities for each, of which fully cutting is just one. Other options include, logically, not cutting, changing, even emphasizing and investing, depending on market outlook and the student demographics. In some cases the programs already exist at another of the three Alaska Universities and while it might get cut at one it could be centralized at a another. In some cases they are partnerships in which future growth is questionable. E-learning, which is my field, can alleviate some costs, but the major cost is personnel and shifting to e-learning only saves if it can attract enough students to make the personnel costs viable. There are many, many factors involved that are difficult, if not impossible, to see from the outside…

  4. I didn’t see Arle’s comment before I posted, but it is spot-on. One of the most complex factors is the relationship between rural campuses and centers and the main university centers. It is incredibly expensive to maintain rural centers and their mission, their funding, and their future inspire intense politics and passions that I really can’t take a position on publicly (nor would I if I could because it is so complex that I encompass many contradictory positions and answers within myself).

    E-learning may well be an answer to growing some of the programs and keeping them viable, but it is only one answer among many and, for many, just one—often small—part.

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