Opinion: University of Alaska Anchorage Reports on Impacts of COVID-19

The University of Alaska Board of Regents is an 11-member board that is appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Alaska Legislature which oversees all three University of Alaska accredited universities, UAA, UAF, and UAS. In a publicly broadcasted meeting on February 25th, UAA members across multiple campuses reported to their Board of Regents on a variety of topics, highlighting the impacts of COVID-19 to the Universities future health. (CQ)

By Mia Moore

On day one of the two-day full board meeting series, hosted via Zoom, the agenda topics included President’s, Chancellors' and Governance Reports, and a financial briefing, among other standing items.

UAF’s Chancellor, Dan White, shared that his university's plan for fall was, “back to the new normal, with many face-to-face classes”. He said that the plan was for in-person classes and full occupancy residency, but there would still be impacts of COVID-19. “We'll be ready to pull back but plan to be open”, he said.

White said that the universities' focus on strategic enrollment planning, multi-campus collaborations, as well as various initiatives focused on safely engaging students in university life has helped the campus weather the storm and maintain enrollment.

Interim UAS Chancellor Karen Carey echoed White’s sentiments on working creatively with other campuses, focusing on statewide programs to attract and retain students, as well as pushing to retain and recruit Alaska Native students, which would also help to steady registration numbers which she said were down but manageable. Carey said that at UAS, “COVID-19 is under control. We hope for more face-to-face classes next fall”.

UAA’s Interim Chancellor Bruce Schultz highlighted faculty supporting COVID-19 research, mobilizing the fight against the pandemic, which was reported on by local news stations.

Among the topics reported were also staffing grievances, both the support of current staff and the inclusiveness of the application and hiring process for future staff members to include more females and BIPOC, which have been made more difficult to navigate within the current climate. On this topic, UA System’s Interim President Pat Pitney said that she was looking at what life would look like past COVID-19 regarding employees and the workplace, saying that policy changes would need to be drafted in the summer. These changes were to include working to improve the environment to make it inclusive for Alaskan Natives, both as students and as prospective faculty.

On COVID-19 responses, Pitney said, “We’re in a new normal under fall semester. We learned a lot in the pivot on COVID-19. We learned how fast we can change and the added value that we want to maintain”. Pitney said that it was up to each university’s academic program to think about what their new normal would look like, and to build on their own innovations.

Jeff Jessee, Dean of the College of Health, spoke to the current state of his program as well as its operating budget. “COVID-19 response was a big deal at the university and college,” Jessee said, with staff coordinating PPE materials across the state, doing research and evaluation on predictive modeling on the evolution of COVID-19, training contact tracers to support state call centers, all while pivoting to online learning to continue supporting current students.

With regards to the financial makeup of the college and university health programs, Jessee said that due the pandemic, unrestricted general funds and overall tuition were down, but other areas have been maintained, including student credit hours. Jessee said that the emphasis has been put on fundraising, with nearly six million dollars having come in from partners in the healthcare industry, and that they were currently working to apply for various grant programs that would help to cushion other shortfalls.

Myron Dosch, the UA System’s chief financial officer, projected that there was a $35.5 million fund balance, representing five percent of the University’s operating revenue. Guidelines are set to be between two and six percent, meaning UAA was on track to meet its FY21 goals.

Dosch said that they were reducing expenditures, but part of what they were seeing was COVID-19’s effect on enrollment, and that impacts tuition revenue, which contributes to the fund balance decline. “There are other expenditures,” Dosch said, “a big portion were incurred last fiscal year. In total, $47 million is our cumulative impact. That exceeds the COVID support we've received to date”. Dosch said that there was the possibility of more funds coming in with the next stimulus package. He said that there were overall favorable returns for the year, which is something to celebrate, and he anticipated a positive fund balance at the end of the year.