Voices of Alaska: UA working to build a culture of education

  • By Jim Johnsen
  • Sunday, December 25, 2016 11:30am
  • Opinion

The University of Alaska is facing continued budgetary and market pressures that compel us to change how we provide higher education for Alaskans, pressures that require us to make tough choices. The most recent was the Board of Regents decision that the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) would serve as the administrative lead for our teacher education programs. The regents and I share the belief that teacher education is a critically important priority given our state’s compelling need for Alaska-educated teachers, and our unparalleled opportunity to build a culture of education in Alaska.

Our goal is to increase the rate of Alaskans hired as teachers each year from 30 percent this year to 90 percent by 2025. This is a bold and ambitious goal, but we owe it to our students and our state to stretch toward this critically important outcome for the long term health of Alaska, and we are relying on the Strategic Pathways process to help get us there.

The Strategic Pathways team — including faculty, staff, community members — that reviewed teacher education programs identified several options for organizing our several colleges and schools of education. One option, a single administration with multiple locations was based in part on UA’s successful experience with a single nursing college. The nursing model increased our preparation of high quality nurses with a single dean at UAA and faculty and students on campuses all across the UA system. Based on input from across the UA system and its communities, I recommended this option to the Board of Regents in September. The board expressed unanimous support.

The next decision was to identify the lead campus. I consulted with the chancellors and the chief academic officers, asking them to propose why their campus should be the home to teacher education and considered extensive input from many sources, including faculty, staff, students, alumni, and school district superintendents. I also was aware of best practices in other countries with high performing educational systems.

Based on these multiple factors, I recommended to the Board of Regents at its meeting in November that the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) serve as the administrative lead for our teacher preparation programs. That recommendation was based on several considerations, including best practices and the chancellors’ commitment to collaborate no matter which campus was selected to lead. I also proposed a number of provisions that would mitigate the effects of the decision on the two campuses not selected. These included not moving faculty or requiring students to move in order to obtain their degrees, an advisory council that would represent all three university campuses, revenue sharing, and opportunities for “innovation zones” in which new initiatives could be piloted before adoption across the system.

The Board of Regents did not accept my recommendation for UAF leadership in November and instead decided to reconvene on December 14 to reconsider which campus would provide administrative leadership for teacher preparation.

In those intervening weeks. I received a considerable amount of additional input, including from numerous highly respected education and community leaders. In general, this input supported naming a single campus as the lead. Some argued for a particular location, but by far most of the input argued for one lead campus no matter where it was located.

In listening to all input, I learned some things I did not know when I made my original recommendation. First, consistent with much of the input, I was convinced that we needed a decision on the location immediately, irrespective of which campus was selected, so that we could begin to address the many concerns that arose while the decision was pending, and get going on planning and implementation.

Second was the loss at UAS of, arguably, its highest priority program, whereas UAF and UAA each have numerous programs that lead in our state. UAF’s strength in research comes quickly to mind, along with UAA’s leadership in health programs.

Thirdly, I recognized that it would be more likely UAS would make teacher preparation its top mission priority, whereas the other two universities have many other urgent priorities and opportunities — e.g., research, health programs, engineering, business and management — more likely to take the top spot on their list of priorities.

Fourth, the advantage of UAS’ physical proximity to education leaders in the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development was a consideration in light of our commitment to improve alignment between the P-12 and higher education segments of our state’s education system.

As a result, I ultimately found the case for UAS leadership more compelling, and changed my recommendation accordingly.

To make these and other tough choices in the months ahead, we will continue to rely on Strategic Pathways, an open process for examining and implementing needed changes. Although not everyone will be happy with the outcomes, we have put our students first in every decision, making sure they have full access to a top quality, cost effective education.

With university and community support, I am confident we can identify and make those choices. Teachers are critically important for our university’s mission, for our children’s success, and for our state’s future. This restructuring of our teacher preparation programs will set us on the path to growing more teachers, lifting up the teaching profession, and creating the culture of education Alaska so badly needs, and so rightly deserves.

Jim Johnsen is the President of the University of Alaska.