Technology fee brings 'magic' to UAF classrooms, departments

Jeremia Schrock/Sun Star Reporter
May 1, 2012

Satellite and communication dishes atop the Gruening Building. Michelle Strehl/Sun Star

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the attempt to help develop and adapt new technology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Board of Regents established  a system-wide technology fee  in 1997.

Every semester, students pay a $5 fee that supports technology-focused projects at UAF. Since the fee’s inception, more than $3.7 million has financed projects at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The origin of the UA technology fee is fuzzy. The Board of Regents created the fee on April 17, 1997. Their meeting minutes do not explain why the fee was created. Alumni director Joe Hayes, a student regent at the time, offered some insight into the board’s decision-making process.

“In 1997, the Internet was still pretty much in its infancy, but you could just look at long-range projections and see that the Internet was going to be huge,” Hayes said. “We didn’t know how huge it was going to be, but it was going to be huge.”

There was a sense of foreboding among the regents and university administration, Hayes said. There were going to be future technology needs that the board couldn’t predict or foresee. It was safer to create a fee now than to play catch-up later.

The technology fee is not unique to UAF.

In 1997, UAA and UAS also implemented technology fees. Each campus keeps what it raises. At UAF, the fee is overseen by the Technology Advisory Board. TAB receives funding proposals from students, staff and faculty every semester. The board approves which projects get funded based on how useful the projects will be to students.

One of the members of TAB is Katherine Trahanovsky, a graduate student in oceanography. Trahanovsky has been on TAB for three years and has worked in the information technology industry. Her IT background was the reason she became involved with TAB.

“Since the TAB board helps to decide how our student fee money is used, I felt it would be a great way to use my technology background to help ensure student funds are used responsibly,” Trahanovsky wrote in an email. Since her time on the board, Trahanovsky has approved proposals for the Rasmuson Library, the biology department and the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Giving each campus a certain degree of technological flexibility was also important, Hayes said. The fee gives campuses the ability to adapt to new technology. A university-wide bureaucracy makes it hard to implement timely changes, so the fee allows campuses to implement changes at their own pace, Hayes said.

Out of more than 350 projects underwritten by the technology fee, there is an even split between the liberal arts and the sciences.

The university used the fee to refurbish computer labs in Irving and Butrovich, supply journalism students with flip video cameras and give biology students a new laboratory. It helped engineering students build a robot for Arctic exploration and made Apple iPads available for checkout at the Rasmuson Library.

The top five grant recipients received more than $1.5 million combined since the fee’s inception, amounting to 40 percent of the total funding the fee has received. The Rasmuson Library received the most technology fee money. Since summer 1997, the library has seen at least 36  projects receive more than $429,000. Projects funded at the library include purchasing new rental equipment, refurbishing the computer labs and paying for staff.

“I am always supportive of purchasing new and upgraded technologies for the library because everyone at the university has open access to them,” Trahanovsky wrote.

Three of the top five departments that receive the most funding were in the College of Liberal Arts: journalism, art and music. Since spring 2003, 26 projects in the journalism department received more than $285,000 in funding. Most of the purchases included new cameras and camera lenses.

The art department, with more than $282,000, and the music department, with more than $130,000, are second and third in funding behind the journalism department. Both had their first funded projects in Spring 1999.

The Office of Information Technology is the only technology-focused organization to place in the top five grant recipients. While the office has only seen projects funded, they were worth more than $396,000 combined. They received $276,000 during the 2010-2011 school year and used their funding to maintain and add SMART classrooms and provide extended-hour availability at four of the university’s computer labs.

OIT received an additional $120,000 during the 2011-2012 school year.

Student-led organizations received funding almost two dozen times. The top three student organizations to receive funding for projects were The Sun Star, the Society of Automotive Engineers and KSUA, the student radio station. Student organizations account for less than seven percent of all awarded projects.

Michael Golub, a member of SAE, has applied for grants on behalf of the organization. Funding from TAB helped SAE purchase equipment for several projects, he wrote in an email. These projects included building an electric snowmobile, small three-wheel prototype vehicles and cold-weather batteries.

While Golub is thankful for the funding, he said, with the arrival of funding comes additional stress.

“If you apply for funding and you make good use of it then you deserve to continue to obtain continued support,” he wrote.

One example of “good use” was winning an international competition.

“Unfortunately, this puts lots of stress on the student research team,” he wrote, adding that much of this stress is placed on college seniors.

Despite TAB’s apparent success, there are issues with the board’s public record keeping. Whole semesters of data are missing from TAB’s online record, as well as inconsistencies in what is available from year-to-year.

From fall ’97 to fall ’00, there is no mention of which projects were funded. From summer ’97 to fall ’11, two-thirds of all semesters lack records on how much money was awarded to projects.

Some files for semesters just after the fee’s creation in ’97 include an official memo from the TAB chair to members of UAF’s administration detailing how much money will be spent and who will be funded.

Other semesters have varying amounts of information such as only listing proposals or only listing projects funded. The actual amount raised by the fee is available for two semesters: fall ’97 and spring ’01.

Record-keeping aside, the technology fee has had a significant impact on technological advancement and development at UAF. From funding student organizations to department-wide projects, the fee made hundred of projects possible.

The creation of the fee was a visionary move on the part of the regents and the UA administration, Hayes said.

“It did allow for the university to be able to shift or change at a moment’s notice and be able to give the students the best level of technology that students could actually have,” Hayes said.

Full disclosure: The Sun Star has received TAB grants.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *