Fisher Report holds clues to UAF’s future

By Jeremia Schrock
Sun Star Reporter

Between August and November of 2010, a team of five higher-education professionals from the contiguous 48 states was hired to analyze and review the general condition of the University of Alaska (UA) system. The review focused on academic programs, budget, faculty, students, intercollegiate athletics and administration within the UA. James Fisher, former president of Towson State University in Maryland, headed the team. Fisher presented 85 recommendations on how the UA system could be improved. Many of these recommendations, if approved by the Board of Regents, would dramatically alter the academic landscapes of all three major campuses.

On Jan. 20, UA President Patrick Gamble (who hired Fisher and his team) released the findings of the review to the university. “This is not a report card,” remarked the president in a memo. “The report does not contain a checklist.” What it does contain, however, is a detailed breakdown of where Fisher sees the university as having begun to sink and where it can still be salvaged.

The Fisher Report points out five major challenges to the University of Alaska’s survival: the expansion of UAA (at a potential cost to UAF), improvement of education quality, diminished oil revenues and climate change, cutting costs but not performance or quality and the implementation of an administrative model that ensures all the above can occur.

One major change UAF would undergo is in the number of degrees it offers. Some programs would expand (Arctic biology, cold climate engineering, Alaska Native languages and the marine sciences) while others would be eliminated or relocated to UAA.

Other potential changes include a writing competency exit exam and a foreign language requirement. UAF students would be asked to “demonstrate their ability to write clearly and cogently upon graduation” and would be required to show competency in a foreign language or culture. Another recommendation of the report is that the University of Alaska institute a computer literacy requirement beyond the computer science classes currently taught.

The report also encourages the State of Alaska to make “targeted investments” in biomedical research, energy-related studies and climate change. According to Fisher, investing in such areas would not only help address the specific needs of Alaska but also “attract considerable outside funding.” One way to do this would be in expanding the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) medical school. Established in 1971, the Alaska WWAMI program has allowed hundreds of Alaskans to complete their first year of medical school at UAA before continuing their education at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. The third and fourth years of their medical school curriculum can then be met by taking rotating apprenticeships in any of the five participating states. The Fisher Report recommendation for the Board of Regents is to open WWAMI-like programs for veterinary medicine, dentistry, architecture and law.

Other recommendations for UA include a more “harmonious” cross-campus student records system, an increase in the student technology fee, “smart” classrooms and more strictly designated student fees.

When it comes to upgrading “smart” classrooms, the question is ultimately one of money. “Right now the student technology fee doesn’t cover it,” said Julie Larweth, Executive Officer of the Office of Information Technology (OIT). “With more funding allocation they could definitely upgrade more classrooms,” Larweth added. While she doesn’t believe that the fee needs to be raised to achieve this, Larweth said the amount allocated to OIT should be increased.

The report also stressed, “The University really does need to determine why so many of its students drop out.” A 2010 study released by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that only 27 percent of UAF students graduate. The Fisher report believes that part of this can be attributed to the absence of campus-based, needs-based financial aid.

When it comes to money, Fisher believes that UA needs to learn how to do without, citing a decline in state oil production since 1988. In order to prepare for more “famine” budgets, UAF needs to begin eliminating whole programs “in order to sustain its support for its most vital and highest quality programs.” Other funding sources for UA include the floating of bonds, a more efficient UA System Central Office, keeping a “close eye” on athletic expenses and beefing up its private and alumni fund-raising efforts.

However, not everyone agrees with the reports findings. One such individual is long-time UAF history professor Carol Gold. Gold’s concerns lay in the report’s methodology, particularly how the report cites that “most” people at the university are “very pleased with the appointment of new President Patrick Gamble.”

“I don’t know who [Fisher] asked,” Gold said. “Nobody I know was asked.”

In the Jan. 20 memo, Gamble wrote that the Fisher Report, coupled with the 2008 MacTaggart/Rogers Report, would provide a starting point for a gradual overhaul of the UA system. “It is not a quick read, nor is it a blueprint to be followed dogmatically,” Gamble added.

In an interview on Jan. 21, Governor Sean Parnell said that he had not yet read the Fisher Report.

President Gamble encourages readers to submit their notes on the Fisher Report to him at ua.president@alaska.edu.

A copy of the report can be found here.

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