State of the University: Thomas looks to the future

During the annual State of the University address held in the Davis Concert Hall Thursday afternoon, newly appointed interim Chancellor Dana Thomas discussed the difficulties facing the University of Alaska in what he described as “an unclear future.”

“One of the things I love to do most in Alaska is get out in the wilderness, especially in a canoe,” Thomas said. “However, you will generally not find me paddling lakes or ponds. I like the challenge of whitewater and as you know all too well, the university has been facing a long stretch of rapids.”

While large scale budget cuts and Strategic pathways, a framework to reorganize the university by placing specialties at each campus, have been discussed at length, Thomas presented the crowded concert hall with some new ideas during his speech.

Thomas placed significant emphasis on increasing UAF’s enrollment. Over the next five years, Thomas said he hopes to bump the university’s admitted baccalaureate students to 5,000, increase associate level and baccalaureate intended students to 2,300 and most significantly bump the undergraduate graduation number from 1,000 last spring to 1,200 by 2021.

Currently, UAF leads the statewide university system with a 6-year baccalaureate graduation rate of more than 40 percent. Thomas would like to increase that to 50 percent.

In order to increase student enrollment as well as student graduation, Thomas emphasized the need for continued fundraising and increased scholarships provided to students, as well as top notch campus facilities.

The Board of Regents has approved bonding to complete the new engineering building, which has been sitting vacant for at least a year.

“I look forward to seeing students in class in that building in the spring of 2018,” Thomas said.

During the speech, Thomas paused to show a short video, produced by eLearning and University relations, highlighting UAF’s accomplishments over the past century, an overarching theme throughout his speech.

These included the upcoming centennial anniversary to be celebrated in January, the recent naming of UAF as a tier one national university by U.S News and World Report (making UAF the only tier one university in Alaska) and the increasing of the Alumni Association membership by 23 percent in only 18 months.

“We are a university that was founded by a cast of interesting characters,” Thomas said. “It’s because of their strong will and foresight that we are here today.”

While Thomas feels strongly that UAF has a strong leadership team, he encouraged the public to contact the legislature and share their concerns.

“It’s important that legislators hear from us about the increasingly difficult choices we must make if the budget is reduced further,” Thomas said. “We must ask them to create a revenue stream this year to address the budget gap, and if they are not willing to do so, then we must ask them what kind of future the state will have without a strong university.”

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