Howls unheard: Town Hall meeting showcases the many voices of UAA

On Aug. 29, several members of the University of Alaska Anchorage community gathered at Anchorage’s ZJ Loussac Library for an Anchorage Assembly Town Hall meeting to discuss the future of UAA under decisions by UA President Jim Johnsen and the UA Board of Regents.

A recent Anchorage Assembly Town Hall meeting united the many voice of the UAA and Anchorage communities. Photo by Jason Herr.

The gathering was opened by Anchorage Assembly member Felix Rivera, who clarified the need for the meeting.

“The potential impacts from what the Board of Regents have started, and what President Johnsen has started, they could have a lot of negative economic ramifications for our city,” Rivera said. “And, as the assembly members that represent midtown, and thus represent both of the universities on the Anchorage assembly, it was important to us to have a community dialogue.”

The meeting was sponsored by both Rivera and Meg Zaletel, another Anchorage Assembly member, and tied to the Save the Seawolf advocacy group. Both Rivera and Zaletel’s districts are in midtown Anchorage, where UAA is located.

Save the Seawolf is an Anchorage-based advocacy entity that is working toward finding a solution for UA and UAA outside of the UA Board of Regents’ consolidation plan. Through resources and outreach events, the group works to actively involve the UAA community with efforts to speak up and to protect UAA from becoming lost in the single-university plan.

“President Johnsen’s plans to consolidate UAF, UAA, and UAS into a single accredited university makes the Seawolf an endangered species,” according to the Save the Seawolf website.

Rivera was contacted by a UAA organizing committee to help make the collaborative dialogue possible, combining the voices of UAA, university supporters and the Anchorage community in a public forum at the municipal library.

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Students, staff, faculty, alumni and more were represented on the panel, each giving their perspective on the possibility of the consolidation of the UA system and their thoughts on its future. The gathered public was a mix of students, Anchorage community members, local officials and citizens with connections to the university.

Both the panel and the crowd shared their past and present connections with UAA, as applause and exclamations accented points that were agreed upon.

Shane Castle, a term writing instructor with UAA’s department of writing, shares his thoughts and experiences with the crowd at the town hall meeting. Photo by Jason Herr.

One common concern shared among the speakers was the lack of involvement by the UA Board of Regents in the decision-making for the future of UAA and the UA system.

Students were represented on the panel by two members of the Union of Students of the University of Alaska Anchorage, or USUAA. Both Alex Jorgenson, speaker of the assembly, and Clare Baldwin, president, spoke to their experiences and thoughts of the decision to consolidate UA into a single university.

UA decisions had been made and discussed over the summer, a time when many students were away from campus and could not participate as easily in advocating for the university in a time of fundamental changes, Jorgensen said.

“Everything has gone on while students haven’t been around. They’ve been out hiking, biking, working, to save up for college,” Jorgensen said. “We’re not here, not being students, so we can be students in the fall, so a majority of this entire conversation has gone on when students are not even around.”

Jorgensen explained that students’ voices were absent from the decision making.

“We were never consulted,” Jorgensen said. “We were never asked ‘hey, would you like to send a few students to these conversations about how we are fundamentally changing the academic structure of statewide in all of our universities?’ We weren’t [asked].”

USUAA looked to the University of Alaska Fairbanks student government, or USUAF, to find out what their peer student government group was doing and discovered the USUAF had not been invited to the discussions either. The UAF student president had been told by the Board of Regents that students could observe the discussions but not participate, according to Jorgensen.

Though several members of the UAA community were present, an individual questioned the lack of presence from a majority of the UA Board of Regents.

Flyers and notifications for the town hall meeting had stated that Chancellor Cathy Sandeen and UA President Johnsen would be at the meeting, but they were not present. A member of the panel explained.

“The president told the chancellor not to come, just like in the last board of regent meetings. It was only at the insistence of the student regent that the chancellors [UAA, UAF and UAS] were even allowed to speak,” Stacey Lucason, a former student regent of the UA Board of Regents and UAA alumni, said.

The crowd questioned the absence of Johnsen as well, noting that the original town hall meeting date of Aug. 26 had been moved to Aug. 29 after a cancellation from Johnsen.

“This is [Johnsen’s] second failure,” one member of the public said.

Johnsen’s sole presence was a brief video presented at the beginning of the meeting, in which he further explained the plan for the consolidation of the UA system.

Conversations continued after the meeting closed when community members shared their stories and thoughts. Though the meeting provided an outlet for many voices, the turnout for the event caused concern for future outcomes.

“I feel energized, but there are not enough people here to win,” Brian Ibsen, director of philanthropy with UAA’s Office of Development, said. “This was about winning.”

The UAA community, student body, staff, faculty and administration are all working to create a successful university with students in mind, but their efforts may be fruitless without the right people being willing to listen.

The greater the pack, the louder the howl.

Future information, events and advocacy resources can be found at