Students sparse at budget input forum
While Strategic Pathways directly affects the student body through consolidating and restructuring programs, few students showed up for a forum held Tuesday afternoon.
The Wood Center ballroom was lightly peppered with under 40 people, counting students, staff and faculty. UA President Jim Johnsen and Interim Chancellor Dana Thomas were on-hand to answer questions about the process, and while many seats remained empty, there were plenty of questions.
Alina Fairbanks, a fisheries student, brought up the fact that Strategic Pathways, while designed to streamline university functions, has caused a lot of inter and intra-campus strife.
“After [this] is done, what’s going to happen to the tension between the different schools here, specifically between UAF and the UA system?” Fairbanks said. “Because every college, and professors and students within that, are really fighting for their specific major and their college. How are we going to overcome the tension caused by moving and directing different colleges and schools?”
Johnsen’s response focused on future policies that will encourage inter-campus collaboration.
“When a campus has a specific mission, often the system is looking at things at another level,” Johnsen said, “the state’s needs for higher education as opposed to more regional needs the campus may be thinking about. Those tensions are always going to be there, but to the extent we can create processes that encourage collaboration, I think will help.”
Thomas used the fisheries department as a current example of functional collaboration between campuses, emphasizing the work UAS and UAF have done together. Fisheries is one of the departments up for restructuring during this second phase of Strategic Pathways.
Further collaboration was a focus of discussion throughout the forum. Julie Maiers, a developmental math professor, expressed support for option six within the Community Campuses report found on the Strategic Pathways website. This option places focus on enhanced collaboration and alignment among community campuses across UA system, according to the report.
“I’ve been with the community campuses in one way or another for a while and they’re excellent at delivering courses in diverse ways, face-to-face, intensives, e-Learning and synchronistic distance classes. Some of those students need one or all of those,” Maiers said. “I think keeping an open mind, flexibility and collaboration, that’s how we’re going to win through this.”
“More coordination is what we need,” Thomas responded.
Brian Holst, an ASUAF senator, wanted to know what specifically was going to happen to eLearning during this phase.
Johnsen said though no decisions have been made, e-Learning will play a key role in the university’s future.
“We lead the country in the percentage of our people with some college and no degree,” Johnsen said. “115,000 Alaskans, and if we’re going to reach those people and help provide them a step up in their lives and careers through higher education, it’s not likely to be through face to face courses on college campuses, it’s more likely to be via eLearning.”
eLearning will remain a pivotal part of university education, according to Johnsen but that face to face learning is essential.
“It’s not all, take it away and everything’s done online kind of things, and that’s because of our students,” Johnsen said. “Many of our students really need and want that kind of face to face service and we are committed to providing that.”
John George, a professor in fire science at the UAF community and technical college expressed concern regarding legislator intent language found in the year budget handed down by the state.
There are two pieces of intent in the current budget for FY 18, Johnsen said. The first is to bring the system’s athletics teams, both at UAA and UAF, down to the NCAA minimum of 10 teams. UAA currently has 13 and UAF as 10.
The second piece of intent pertains to the percentage reductions in the university campuses by statewide. The university has no problem with reductions to statewide, Johnsen said, as shown by reductions in this area over the past few years.
Lack of Communication
While appreciation was expressed to Johnsen and Thomas for holding the forum in an effort to improve communication, a lack of communication during other parts of Strategic Pathways was a point of contention.
“At least three of your criteria you listed were related to financials. In my own review of Strategic Pathways phase I and phase II documents, the financials are largely missing,” said Gordon Williams, a professor in the math department. “When I hear the regents or you speaking about these things in public, you talk a lot about the efficiencies that are being achieved but I have no basis related to what I’ve seen that points to how much money are we talking about.”
Gordon referenced the fact that centralizing the school of education in Juneau may in fact cost more money.
“Financials probably weighed very little in that case,” Johnsen said. “It very well might cost additional money in transition period.”
The primary goal in that particular area was to dramatically increase the number of professional educators being trained, Johnsen said.
There was nothing in the documents regarding the school of education change that referenced definite rising enrollment levels, Williams pointed out.
There wasn’t a plan for that when the decision was made, Johnsen said.
“There’s not detailed enrollment analysis at this point. That’s part of planning effort which is commenced in the last few weeks,” Johnsen said.
If something were to go wrong along the way, Williams asked what would happen.
“I don’t know,” Johnsen said. “How we achieve that goal is going to be less important to achieving the goal.”
There have been 24 conversations with those within the areas to be affected by phase II, Johnsen said. Sitting down to talk with those who education for a living has been a learning experience, he added.
“I would love to hear the question, which program is going to result in student success? Which university is going to have the best program to benefit students the most?” said Julie Maiers, a professor the development math department. “We’re here because of students. There’s no other reason to be here, for me or any other. I would love to always hear they’re being put first.”
Johnsen emphasized comments and opinions over questions regarding this second phase, clarifiying he won’t be making any suggestions to the Regents during the Board meeting held later that week in Anchorage, but rather sharing the feedback that has been gathered so far.
“There are no decisions to be made yet,” Johnsen said.