Here's why Alaska won't have 3 boards of trustees to run 3 universities

The University of Alaska Anchorage Faculty Senate is making a case to legislators in Anchorage Friday to break up the University of Alaska. The faculty want three separate boards of trustees to run three competing universities in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau.

I think there is little to no chance of this happening because of legal and political reasons, not to mention financial and practical. To begin with, it’s unconstitutional.

The proposal appeals to Anchorage faculty who think they are forever being shortchanged by a statewide system and an 11-member UA Board of Regents that they say favors Fairbanks.

“Sentiment for the independence of UAA as Alaska State University is strong and growing,” UAA Political Science Professor Forrest Nabors said in his prepared testimony for the 9 a.m. hearing Friday.

The sentiment may make sense to the faculty in Anchorage. It does not make sense for Alaska.

With 26,000 students statewide, we don’t need three competing institutions lobbying the Legislature for state support, with each one setting priorities that may or may not be the best for the entire state.

Better to have three institutions that do much more to cooperate and allow for seamless transitions for students and better opportunities.

Some forms of cooperation should be simple and are long overdue.

For instance, UAA has long had the tradition of holding almost no classes on Fridays, which is why many UAA faculty are free to attend the 9 a.m. session at UAA with the Senate State Affairs Committee.

There are classes in Fairbanks and Juneau on Fridays. The five-day schedule should be standard. Or the four-day schedule should be standard. The deciding factor should be what is best for the students.

The three universities should have class schedules that allow students at UAA, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast at other campuses on-line.

That is already happening to some extent, but the schools have to do more to eliminate institutional barriers, instead of creating new ones.

We need a system in which a student can file one application, get one transcript and receive one bill. We need a system in which a contractor deals with one billing office. There are plenty of ways in which service to Alaskans can be improved by simplifying the structure and allowing the campuses to maintain a sense of identity.

There is also the matter of the Alaska Constitution, which establishes one university, not three.

Nabors, the chair of the governance committee for the UAA faculty, tells legislators he is “in favor of testing the question whether the Constitution permits a public institution of higher education to exist independent of UA.”

I see no reason for the state to waste money, time and effort testing that question.

Nabors contends the Legislature has the power to give UAA “our own board of trustees, final authority over programs and services, our own endowment managed by our own foundation, and limit the responsibilities of the Board of Regents to compliance and general policy. You can make the chancellors of our universities accountable to their boards of trustees only.”

The legal argument Nabors and a few other faculty members make for this is pretty weak, founded on the idea that the Constitution created the Board of Regents to run the university “in accordance with law.” They say those four words open the door for the Legislature to set up new universities by law.

But the full text of the two short constitutional provisions about UA call for a single state university run by the UA Board of Regents.

“The University of Alaska is hereby established as the state university and constituted a body corporate. It shall have title to all real and personal property now or hereafter set aside for or conveyed to it. Its property shall be administered and disposed of according to law.”

“The University of Alaska shall be governed by a board of regents. The regents shall be appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by a majority of the members of the legislature in joint session. The board shall, in accordance with law, formulate policy and appoint the president of the university. He shall be the executive officer of the board.”

Speaking about this element of the Constitution during the convention in 1956, Delegate Vic Rivers said the goal was to have a single state university, which could have “a number of diverse branches” in the future. Rivers said the goal was to avoid the situation in other states where multiple universities compete for legislative support. The language and the goal is clear.

It would take a constitutional amendment to create Alaska State University in Anchorage, an amendment that is not going to happen.

The current board includes one member from Juneau, Wrangell, Kodiak, Soldotna, Wasilla, two from Fairbanks, three from Anchorage and a student regent from UAF.

With higher education in disarray in Alaska because of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s rule-by-veto regime—made possible by the right-wing legislative bloc from Anchorage and Mat-Su—this debate distracts from the need to develop a reasonable plan that works best for all Alaskans and reverses the actions of the governor.

Dermot Cole40 Comments