Phase one of Strategic Pathways seeks to cut UA athletics programs

In a presentation on August 17, University of Alaska announced one of the first proposed phases of the Strategic Pathways program. This announcement focused on how much is spent on athletics each year, and proposed three options. Option one proposes the elimination of one or both athletic programs, option two proposed a “Consortium Model” between UAA and UAF and option three supports modifying the Great Northwest Athletics Conference sponsorships to one or both of the universities.

The largest cut made in these options is that to both the UAA and UAF men’s hockey programs. Two of the three options eliminate the sport entirely. According to the Athletics Presentation document published and initial comments made by Athletics Director Keith Hackett, cutting UAA hockey would save the university $1.9 million a season, approximately 10 percent of the department’s $10.5 million budget.

“It’s some narrow minded thinking to think that this is a good option to eliminate hockey at all,” Matt Thomas, Head Coach of UAA’s men’s hockey team said.

While option one in the Strategic Pathways proposal looks at eliminating athletics entirely, the other two would somewhat preserve student athletics at the universities. Option two’s “Consortium Model” takes a look at reducing the total number of statewide sports from 23 to just over 10. This model would be similar to few other colleges in the nation, such as Columbia University and Barnard College in New York. Their Athletic Consortium allows students from Barnard to play under the Columbia University Lions teams while allowing for academic partnerships between the universities. The cons of the option for UA far outweigh the pros in the proposal, noting issues in branding, Title IX compliance, NCAA approval, a lengthy timeline to execution and distance.

“I think it’s so unprecedented. If you look at comparisons of what consortium models look like, they usually involve a geographic element and or the schools being close enough where one doesn’t offer athletics and a school that is across the street or in the same town that does, allowing a partnership where students from that other school would be able to participate. I don’t think it’s an executable option,” Thomas said.

Budget cuts must be made, but finding the right options is a challenge, not only for the university, but for the state as a whole.

“There’s talks about cutting education further, there’s talks about cutting university funding further. I think that’s short sighted. I think that’s something I’m very concerned about,” Bill Wielichowski, Alaska State Senator for Senate District H said. “I think it’s short sighted to cut the university funding, I think that’s a huge economic driver. It’s what helps us keep young, bright people in the state.”

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The men’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the sponsors for both UAA and UAF’s hockey teams, has thrown their voice into the mass commenting following the release of the Strategic Pathways announcement, stating via Twitter, “We fully support our Alaska schools during these challenging times, & hope both UAA & UAF play #WCHA hockey well into the future.”

For Thomas, he hopes that he and his team can continue to show their worth to the university in the upcoming season.

“Right now, we can only control what we can control and that’s the message. For us, that’s the focus on having a winning season and improving our program and nothing changes that because no decision has been made,” Thomas said. “Just that they’re even contemplating that type of major decision and putting it out there, it’s an unfortunate situation, but it’s the hand we’re dealt right now and we can’t control that. What we can control is showing our community how much we mean to it and we care about it and working hard for them.”

On August 18, Hackett participated in a press conference regarding these options that was available for only a short time via Facebook live on the Seawolf Athletics Facebook page. This press conference has since been removed from the page.

“Director Hackett is not making any more statements regarding Strategic Pathways and that video is no longer up on our Facebook page,” Nate Sagan, Assistant Director of Athletics in Media Relations said.

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Photo credit: Kathryn DuFresne

Sagan also noted that all questions regarding the Strategic Pathways presentation will be re-directed to Robbie Graham, the Associate Vice President of Public Affairs and Federal Relations for UA.

The Board of Regents is scheduled to meet to discuss the proposals on Sept. 15, but students and community members can participate in an open forum with UA President Jim Johnsen on Sept. 7 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in UAA’s Student Union South Cafeteria. Open forums will also be held at UAF on Sept. 1 and at UAS on Sept. 13.

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