Integrity of process questioned for UAF engineering building

The former associate dean of engineering, Grant Baker, is speaking out against an under the radar, last minute change to UAF’s engineering building.

Approved by the Board of Regents during a special session Sept 20, the amendment expands the gross square foot of UAF’s proposed engineering building by 140 percent.

Board of Regents SPECIAL MEETING AGENDAS– Sept 20, 2011

Baker said the move “makes no sense” because UAA’s School of Engineering is growing at a faster rate, is currently three times smaller than UAF’s facilities, and has had more students since 2006.
“You can see that this thing is still strongly controlled by some forces that aren’t in the interest of students,” Baker said. “We have no advocacy really for UAA that will stand up to the statewide administration in Fairbanks, probably for good reason, because when you do you get terminated.”

Grant Baker

Along with the Dean of Engineering Rob Lang, Baker was removed from his post on Aug 18. Chancellor Tom Case said the change was necessary because of “internal issues.”
Baker was very popular with students. The UAA School of Engineering Advisory Board, a body of local industry leaders, created a resolution of support for Lang and Baker the day after their dismissal that recognized the “outstanding management of the School of Engineering by this sterling team.”
The expansion of UAF’s building comes about a month after Baker and Lang were dismissed. Baker speculated that their dismissal was necessary for UAF’s building to expand.

“It really was Rob Lang and I who were holding the line to meet UAA’s needs,” Baker said.

Another SOE staff member who requested anonymity agreed with Baker’s speculation.

Rob Lang

UAF’s expansion is surprising to UAA faculty, and even one UAF administrator was unaware of the change until contacted for this article.
“It’s extremely surprising. To me at least, personally,” Professor and Chair of the Civil Engineering department, Osama Abaza, said.
Associate Dean of Engineering Research at UAF Charlie Mayer said he was unconvinced of the numbers until Oct 13, when he reviewed the report. He did note that there is phase two portion for UAA that would add 126 GSF. Phase two is not currently funded.
The BOR made their decision based off a report by a hired consultant, Ira Fink.
“It was essential to the Board of Regents decision,” Mayer said of the report.
The \”Fink Report\” includes several drafts for each school. In February, the BOR approved one draft that set the total GSF at 50,000 for UAF and 75,000 for UAA.
Eight days before the BOR met on Sept 20, Baker said that Fink allowed an alternative draft to be used. The change is reflected in a report by the UAF Engineering Facility, which states UAF will actually need 116,900 new GSF, and 23,000 GSF for connections.
The total of 139,900 GSF appeared on Sept 20’s agenda, and was accepted by the BOR. UAA’s building will remain the same size, despite the program’s faster growth and larger enrollment.
UAF’s current engineering facilities are 120,00 gross square feet, which is three times that of UAA’s current facilities. The addition that was approved by the BOR would bring the total GSF of the UAF’s building to 240,000. The total approved for the UAA building is 115,000 GSF.
“It’s just going to be more inefficient by the time it’s built,” Baker said.
Mayer said other numbers, like assignable gross square feet (AGSF) need to be considered. While Fairbanks has more gross space, a surprising amount cannot be used. The building was designed in 1950, and many areas are impractical for classrooms or administrative functions, Mayer said.
Mayer also said the UAA engineering building is allotted more money.
“ One other number that you need to consider is the “total cost” number: $123M for UAA, $108M for UAF. Given how things work in the world, stand-alone buildings often cannot be compared. For UAA parking ($28M) is a required part of the package. For UAF, a “Functional Connection” ($13M) is required,“ Mayer wrote via email.

Charles Mayer
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Since 2005, there have been more undergraduates and graduates enrolled in engineering programs at UAA than at Fairbanks. From fall 2002 to fall 2010, UAA’s enrollment has grown 2 percent higher than UAF’s on an annual, according to the Fink Report.
The Fink Report has been criticized by UAA and UAF for several reasons, ranging from its suggestion that no first-year engineering student be allowed to attend part-time, to its use of number of faculty to determine allotted space, to its proposal that both engineering schools should expect stagnation within a decade.
Baker saw several flaws in Fink’s research methods that would favor UAF.
“Ira Fink (consultant from California hired by UA Admin in Fairbanks) used a basis of 1674 GSF per faculty member as existed in Fall 2009 as his calculation basis for space needed. This basis completely ignores the students, i.e. same amount of space is provided regardless of whether you have one student or 1,000,000 students,” Baker wrote via email.
UAA has not had an increase in faculty since 2009. During that time, enrollment in the engineering program has increased 30 percent, but no new faculty member has been hired. As of Oct 11, Baker said that the school needs eight more full-time faculty members.
Fairbanks says they are similarly striped for resources.

“I think every university campus in the UA system is going to say that they don’t get enough money. I know that everyone at UAF says the same thing,” Mayer said.

Mayer added that UAF has only added one adjunct position in the last three years.
Mayer maintained that UAF needs extra space. When asked if certain programs at UAF required more space, Mayer replied,
“Absolutely. Our numbers have shot up over the past five years, almost doubling. A lot of programs here have a strong lab component and that takes more space,” Mayer said. “Furthermore, we have a strong research component, so that takes more space for not only the research equipment but also for housing the graduates to undertake their research.”
Baker disagreed, saying that UAA’s is more project orientated that requires more storage space. It also has more students. As of last week, 1,045 people were enrolled in the UAA School of Engineering, compared to Fairbanks, which has 929 as of Oct 3, according to Baker.
UAA has argued that it can meet the demands of industry better because it is located in the state’s most populous region, where demand for engineering is highest. Its location also makes it approximate to hundred of engineering firms, allowing students the chance for internships.

“Both programs contribute a lot to Alaska, but we need to provide programs where there is need,” Abaza said.

Baker said that Fairbanks would not be thinking of a new building if Lang had not proposed it in 2006.

Interview with Grant Baker, Charlie Mayer, and Osama Abaza

UAA first hired a consultant group in 2007. ECI/HYER’s final report was released on May 2008, and found that UAA will need a minimum of 160,000 GSF to accommodate growth until 2014.
“An updated report was produced in September 2009 to counter the position of former UA President Mark Hamilton that had said UAA only gets 50, 000 square feet, which was an arbitrary number picked out of the sky with no basis, one his advisors in Fairbanks had to convince him to impose on UAA,” Baker said.
ECI/HYER’s final report ultimately did not factor into BOR’s decision.
Students and faculty remain curious why the deans were let go and its connection to UAF’s sudden expansion.
“I don’t want to comment on the politics of it, but there’s definitely something going on,” said a faculty member who requested anonymity.
“This just magically happened. One day he was just gone. I want to hear about them,” said Chris Choirs, a senior in the civil engineering program at UAA.

Last updated: Oct 22 12:30pm.