UAA testimony finds a forum

A hearing hosted by The Senate State Affairs Committee included presentations from 22 speakers that represented the broad spectrum of UAA and the Anchorage communities. The committee considered testimonies regarding the restructuring of the University of Alaska system.

The five-hour hearing was held on Sept. 20, a week after the University of Alaska Board of Regents opened its floor to testimonies on restructuring and the ‘New UA’.

Members of the state committee present at the hearing included Sen. Mike Shower, chair of the committee, Sen. John Coghill, vice chair of the committee and Sen. Lora Reinbold, committee member. Absent senators were able to join by teleconference. The hearing was also broadcasted and recorded for the public.

“I think everybody agrees that we need a robust university system,” Sen. Shower said. “The question, perhaps, before us, in a tight budget time, with the budget issues that we’ve had over the last year, is: how is the [university] structure best set up moving forward, so that we can have that robust university system that is so important to our state?”

The UAA hearing will not be the sole hearing on UA restructuring, as more hearings around the state will be held to involve the many other views of the University of Alaska system. Photo by Jason Herr.

The purpose of the hearing was to listen to testimonies on the future of the university system, according to Sen. Shower.

Each of the speakers recounted some of their experiences with UAA and their thoughts of the restructuring of the university system. In their testimonies, all agreed that there are options outside of consolidations. After each testimony, the legislators asked the speaker specific questions about their piece for further clarification.

Forrest Nabors, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at UAA, was the first speaker of the hearing. Nabors spoke about topics including the antiquated Board of Regents and the need to move towards a decentralized UA system.

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“I am here today to request the intervention of the legislature in restructuring the University of Alaska system,” Nabors said. “The structure of our system has been obsolete for a long time, is not performing well and cannot fix itself.”

Governance powers over the UA system given to the Board of Regents are established in the Alaska Constitution, Article VII Section 3. Through this constitution, the Board of Regents is designated as the governing body of the University of Alaska, and gives executive responsibilities to the UA President, currently Jim Johnsen. 

In short, the Board of Regents could make any decision it deems necessary concerning the universities. However, Nabors believes the legislation should be changed by state officials, and allow the universities within UA to become more independent from the UA Board of Regents.

Establishing the UA Board of Regents in the constitution was vital during a time when the University of Alaska was primarily centered around Fairbanks, Nabors said. The university had fewer than 1,000 students on its sole campus at the time.

Now, the three main campuses of UA, the Universities of Alaska Anchorage, Fairbanks and Southeast, have evolved beyond the original scope of the Board of Regents at its establishment. Each university has become unique to the needs of their region, according to Nabors.

“Our system needs to be decentralized, or in other words, our three universities ought to have more autonomy for the improvement of the financial performance of our higher education establishments,” Nabors said.

Decentralization means that certain powers would transfer from the Board of Regents to administrators at each university. The Chancellors would then have the power to make decisions for their own institutions.

The sentiment for an option other than consolidation was echoed by following speakers at the hearing.

USUAA’s speaker of the assembly, Alex Jorgensen (center), represented UAA students at the Senate State Affairs Committee hearing, and Forrest Nabors (left), an associate professor and chair of the political science department, spoke about the need to decentralize the UA system. Photo by Jason Herr.

Alex Jorgensen, speaker of the assembly for the Union of Students at the University of Alaska Anchorage, or USUAA, gave testimony at the hearing on behalf of the students of UAA.

“For the first time, I find myself now fully feeling concerned about the future of the institution that I’ve grown to deeply love over the past going-on five years,” Jorgensen said. “And, I think that it’s been really hard to be a student for the past seven months, that we’ve gotten a consistent message that for some reason, that we as students are not important.” 

Many of the decisions and processes concerning restructuring occurred during the summer, when students and student leaders were away from the campuses. 

“So we’re seeing here, that we as students are not being valued in this process, that as the primary stakeholders of this institution, of UAA, UAF and UAS, that we’re not being properly involved, and it’s I think leading to some potentially very negative consequences to the future of higher education in the state,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen touched on the topic of open-enrollment standards, as UAA differs from UAF and UAS in their acceptance requirements.

“As many of you may know, UAA is the only fully open-access university in the state,” Jorgensen said in his written testimony. “The majority of our bachelor programs do not require selective admissions. Why is open-access necessary? Because everyone deserves an opportunity at higher education. That student who barely made it through high school with a 1.5 GPA because they had a rough home life, yes, he or she deserves a chance at higher education.”

Jorgensen was disappointed with Johnsen’s response to the possible future of UAA’s open-enrollment.

“A few weeks ago when I was in a meeting with President Johnsen, I explained to him the importance of open enrollment to our students and the Anchorage community to which he replied: ‘we will have to balance the enrollment policies if we choose to consolidate,’” Jorgensen said in his written testimony. 

By adjusting or balancing the requirements for enrollment, not all students would be admitted to UAA. Such a change would not be beneficial to the university, Jorgensen said.

“I’m sorry, this just doesn’t cut it. You are either open enrollment, or you are not,” Jorgensen’s written testimony said.

Other representatives with affiliations to UAA addressed a multitude of difficulties that could arise from a consolidation of the system.

Anchorage and state legislators spoke briefly during a break at the Senate State Affairs hearing on Sept. 20 at UAA. Photo by Jason Herr.

Topics included the perspective of the Municipality of Anchorage, delivered by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, First Lady of Anchorage Mara Kimmel and both of the Anchorage Assembly members that represent Anchorage’s midtown district, Felix Rivera and Meg Zaletel.

Members of the UAA faculty and the Faculty Senate spoke to topics of management risks, spending priorities, equity, accreditation and student success.

The UAA Faculty Senate is made up of non-administrative UAA faculty members that represent their peers in matters that affect the general welfare of UAA and its research. The Faculty Senate also functions as a legislative body with the authority to initiate, develop, review and recommend UAA policy, including degree requirements, academic programs and admission policies. The Faculty Senate provides consultation and advisory roles for members of the university administration, according to the UAA Faculty Senate constitution.

UAA alumni were also represented by Lea Bouton, Stacey Lucason, Michael Lowe and Jonathan Taylor.

Just as UAA was given a chance to speak for their community and thoughts of the UA restructuring process, the other UA universities [UAF and UAS] and the UA Board of Regents will be offered hearings as well, to voice their own stances, Sen. Shower said.

Full testimonies and an audio and video recording of the hearing can be found at the Alaska State Legislature website.

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