Anchorage has chance to stop UA infighting before it's too late

There is a long tradition in Alaska that many people who live far from Anchorage will always believe that the big shots in the state's largest city care only about Anchorage. This is an inaccurate and unfair claim, but there is a slice of political truth to it.

What is really unfortunate at this moment in Alaska history—with a leadership vacuum in the governor’s office—is that we have two vital issues on which a powerful minority of Anchorage/Wasilla political leaders—thanks to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s rule-by-veto regime—are showing their disdain for the rest of the state.

One is the ferry system, which is facing severe cuts because Dunleavy and far-right legislators from Anchorage/Wasilla see it as an extravagance for roadless coastal communities that is of no concern to those who spend much of their lives on the Glenn Highway. The second example is the University of Alaska.

Dunleavy and the far-right Republican bloc from Anchorage/Wasilla have already done lasting damage to higher education in Alaska.

They would have done much more damage had the recall campaign not emerged as a serious threat to the governor’s survival. The removal of Tuckerman Babcock and temporary budget director Donna Arduin is not going to solve the crisis.

The cuts to the university budget, and the phony “compact” Dunleavy forced the university to sign, have left the future structure of the institution in doubt, creating uncertainty that harms every aspect of its operation and student recruitment.

There is unrest and debate on every campus about how to redesign the system on the fly without deliberation. It is a foolish and rushed process necessitated by Dunleavy and his GOP allies.

It has to take place because union contracts require the university to give one-year notice to many faculty members before laying them off. Unless major program cutbacks are planned soon, there is no way that the budget cuts that Dunleavy and his GOP allies envision can be managed.

The damage starts and ends with Dunleavy and his GOP backers, but that reality seems to be lost on many people within the university system, who have opted to respond through academic infighting, which could cause the University of Alaska to implode.

To be specific, the UAA Faculty Senate is not putting the blame where it belongs—on Dunleavy and the minority Republicans who support his vetoes—but is casting this entire controversy as a scheme by UA President Jim Johnsen, the UA Board of Regents and the Fairbanks campus to destroy UAA with a proposed merger.

“The result would be a university managed far away from the students it serves,” says the Save the Seawolf website, which was set up by a member of the UAA Faculty Senate and is promoted on the UAA Faculty Senate page.

“While this would keep UAF largely intact, much greater cuts would be required of UAA, UAS and the community campuses, most likely reducing them to mere extensions of the main campus in Fairbanks,” says a sample letter to legislators offered by the Save the Seawolf website.

No one should be naive enough to believe that eliminating and consolidating programs would “keep UAF largely intact.”

The Save the Seawolf site refers to Dunleavy’s backtracking on the UA budget as the “governor’s gift of time,” which is a strange way to describe evidence of incompetence. The website has the look of an official UAA site, including the use of the logo.

The merger discussion will be attacked at a Friday legislative hearing called by Sen. Mike Shower, one of Dunleavy’s allies in the effort to dismantle the University of Alaska. It is set for 9 a.m. at UAA.

In July, Shower refused to vote on a bill restoring items vetoed by the governor, including most of the university cuts. To keep his place in the Senate majority, Shower made himself scarce, along with Sen. Shelley Hughes, and skipped the vote. Shower should have stayed and gone on the record instead of hiding from a tough decision. What he did was inexcusable.

The UAA Faculty, now cooperating with Shower, is making an all-out push to break up the university, calling on the Legislature to override the regents and set up three new boards of trustees. The UAA faculty wants the Legislature to decide how to handle the mess created by Dunleavy and legislators like Shower.

UAA Political Science Professor Forrest Nabors says the merger idea shows the “fallacious logic of central planning.” Nabors was one of the key architects of a report released two months ago that I described in a headline as “UAA Faculty to University of Alaska Fairbanks: Drop Dead.”

The allusion to the 1975 New York Daily News headline was lost on some readers, but it seems apt to describe the conclusion that all the budget cuts should take place at UAF.

“Admittedly, UAF would bear the brunt of the costs. Probably, it will be necessary to declare a state of financial exigency at UAF or for some units that are a part of UAF,” Nabors and other Anchorage faculty members said in July.

There were many errors and false assumptions in the Nabors report, which also pushed the virtues of an independent UAA, UAF and UAS.

UAA officials say a “bloated statewide administration” can be done away with without a real problem by having three separate schools. “Sentiment for the independence of UAA as Alaska State University is strong and growing,” Nabors says.

The advance testimony for the meeting repeats many of the false claims and misleading conclusions presented to Legislature and the public by Mike Barnhill, who was assigned to lead the attack on higher education by Dunleavy. Perhaps the UAA faculty and Barnhill were working together all along.

What is missing from the advance testimony by the UAA Faculty Senate is anything that holds Dunleavy, Shower and others accountable for the budget decisions that created this mess. The reticence of the faculty to call out the governor and his legislative allies erodes the credibility of anything they say.

“Southcentral’s dynamism and distinctive character require an unfettered university that is free to respond to the region’s changing social and economic landscape. That requires local control, not remote control,” UAA Sociology Professor Chad Farell wrote for the meeting.

The UAA faculty will have a hard time convincing anyone outside of UAA that three unfettered institutions—each competing for a greater share of state support—will be more economical than one, given a total UA enrollment now of about 26,000.

They will also have a hard time convincing anyone that the chancellors of the three new schools and the three new boards of trustees will be models of efficiency and cooperation with priorities that best represent all Alaskans.

UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen, who appears to be running for president of “Alaska State University,” should discourage the myopic view that this is all about Anchorage and encourage a broader perspective, one that takes the needs of the entire state into consideration and recognizes the problem of having each community looking out for its own interests.

Sandeen has only been in Alaska for one year and perhaps is not aware that the conventional wisdom of the UAA Faculty Senate is not universally accepted elsewhere.

Another witness at Shower’s hearing, Assistant Philosophy Professor Joel Potter, wants the Legislature to “distribute authority from the president and regents to the chancellors and newly created boards of trustees,” which he believes “would force whatever statewide office continues to exist to take on a true service orientation.”

The message from the UAA Faculty Senate to the rest of the state is that the debate over the future of the university is all about defending turf, encapsulated in the “Save the Seawolf” campaign.

When I questioned the faculty member behind the Save the Seawolf website about the lack of a statewide perspective on higher education, he said, "Why are you not rallying folks in Fairbanks to "Save the Nanook?"

That question reflects a belief that the turf war won't be complete until there is an equally misleading campaign from the Interior.

In a better world, the governor would have a vision for the future of higher education. That's not happening. The Legislature supported the university, but the actions of Shower and others thwarted that attempt.

The UAA Faculty Senate, perhaps unwittingly, is helping Dunleavy and the right-wing legislators who want to destroy the university.

Someone has to decide what is best for the state, not what is best for the UAA Faculty or the UAF faculty. Someone has to decide among the chancellors and set priorities for the entire state.

The regents have the constitutional authority do that, though they have been placed in an impossible position by the governor and the Republicans who supported his veto.

That should be the focus of the legislative hearing Friday. It won’t be.

Dermot Cole44 Comments