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11/1/2019
PoV: UAA faculty Senate follies

By TERRENCE COLE

The University of Alaska regents’ decision to suspend work on restructuring the university makes sense for various reasons. Most importantly, long-range planning is impossible right now, primarily because of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s on-going blackmail of the UA system. But the UAA Faculty Senate has exacerbated the crisis with a Dunleavy-like campaign of half-truths and goofy proposals which have made the way forward more difficult.

The immediate crisis began with Dunleavy’s arbitrary decision on June 28, three days before the new fiscal year, to cut $130 million (about 40%) from the UA state budget, leaving not enough funds to keep the doors open past February 2020 unless thousands of employees were immediately fired. When the recall movement forced Dunleavy to back down from his absurd doomsday budget, Governor Big and Tall stole a page from the Corleone family and made the UA an offer it could not refuse: Take the immediate $130 million hit of June 28, or $70 million over three years.  

This un-refusable “compromise” was like being asked to be kneecapped in one leg or two. And the regents are still in an impossible situation, with nothing to stop Dunleavy from chopping $100 million or more from the university’s budget next year, or red-lining it completely, as the administration has threatened it can do. UA is number one on his hit list. No other agency has been forward-defunded or taken a cut of this magnitude, and no constitutional or legal basis exists for this arrangement. The absurdity caught national attention. Forbes summarized the blackmail farce with a headline for the ages: “The University Of Alaska Avoids The Worst As Governor Shows How Not To Govern.”

In the midst of Dunleavy’s reign of error, the UAA Faculty Senate picked the occasion to settle scores with UA statewide, particularly President Jim Johnsen, who was pushing a restructuring plan under a directive the state House had passed by a 2-1 margin to “consider a plan to transition the University of Alaska from three separately accredited academic institutions into a single accredited institution with multiple community campuses …”

Consolidating the university into a single entity has always been popular with the public and politicians, despite widespread opposition from administrators and faculty, especially at UAA, where they complain that measured by student credit hours — and ignoring all other data — they are underfunded at the expense of UAF. Anchorage faculty somehow decided the main threat to their jobs was not Dunleavy’s 40% cut, but UA consolidation plans and the system itself, a classic case of blaming the victim, or blowing a hole in the bottom of the boat because you don’t care for the captain. A blogger observed that while the Anchorage faculty furor might ostensibly be about leadership and accreditation, the real cause was “the festering, long-standing rivalry between the Anchorage and Fairbanks campus over funding and campus prestige.”

Stricken by Fairbanks-envy, UAA’s senators produced a bizarre report recommending elimination of the Board of Regents and the entire UA system, requiring a constitutional amendment no less, and creating three new boards of regents and three new competing public universities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, enabling the Legislature to decide each session where the money goes. The assumption is this way Anchorage faculty will finally get their fair share of legislative loot! This triple payday also will allow three medical schools, three dental schools, three vet schools, three law schools, etc. What could go wrong?

The Anchorage faculty also decided the 40% cut was fine if it all came from Fairbanks! Skeptics might say their recommendation to cut UAF by 78% and UAA by 0% was a blatantly opportunistic and callous move designed to save their own hides, but the UAA folks claim it was both justified and righteous. Move over Mother Teresa. Greater love than this no tenured professor has than to lay down his laptop for his friends, and say, “Don’t fire me or my friends, fire four out of five in Fairbanks!”

The cut-out-Fairbanks crusade by the Anchorage faculty — which, according to a careful analysis, is based on a string of faulty assumptions and misinformation—is less Mother Teresa and more Mr. Whitekeys: “We cheat the other guy, and pass the savings on to you!” And these are the people who voted no confidence in the leadership of President Jim Johnsen and, naturally, recommended he be fired?

Fortunately for the State of Alaska, the faculty do not run the University of Alaska. Faculty have a vital role to play, however shared governance becomes harder to justify when the actions of faculty representatives demonstrate no sense of true responsibility for all of the university’s stakeholders, no matter where they might live, work or study. Alaska and its university deserve better.

Terrence Cole is an emeritus professor of history who taught for 30 years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.