The University of Alaska is in a difficult position. Facing budget cuts that have extended and deepened for multiple years, the state’s higher education system is looking at extreme measures to reduce its costs, as legislators have sent signals that further cuts may well be in the offing. Fortunately for the system and the state, however, the Legislature restored some of its budget in the current year, avoiding the deeper cuts that would have forced quick action with little time to consider whether the changes being made were wise. A report released last week shows that having the time to consider alternatives before acting could save the state money and maintain the quality of education.
In addition to UA President Jim Johnsen’s Strategic Pathways plan that aims to focus the academic mission of university campuses by reducing duplication, the system was considering a move to single-accreditation. Currently, the system’s three major campuses — Fairbanks, Anchorage and Southeast — are accredited and managed separately. Critics say that separate accreditation adds unnecessary bureaucracy. But last week’s study shed doubt on that premise: Because much of each campus’ administration would still be needed to manage day-to-day operations, savings would be modest at best, and the time and disruption the change would cause might well make the process a negative one for the state, not only in dollars spent but also in the quality of education the university offers.
If money hadn’t been restored to the UA system late in the Legislature’s budgeting process, the extreme cuts proposed earlier in the legislative session might have forced the university to go ahead with the single-accreditation plan before finding out it wouldn’t save money or improve efficiency in a meaningful way.
And the internal report did have some good news. It indicated that campus staff aren’t entrenched in their camps for the sake of defending turf, and that their widespread opposition to single accreditation is rooted in the potential for a single-accreditation move to be detrimental to academic standards. The elimination of program duplication and the academic focusing that are part of President Johnsen’s Strategic Pathways plan appear more likely to yield savings without unduly harming the university’s academic mission or the education experience of its students, and the study found staff and administrators are more receptive to changes of that nature.
Changes are clearly necessary for the university, but they shouldn’t be undertaken without weighing their costs against their benefits, whether the plan is single accreditation, Strategic Pathways or another plan. The university deserves credit for considering its steps before taking them, and legislators deserve credit for restoring funds to allow the university time to do so.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Aug. 7, 2016