- The University of Alaska System's board of regents unanimously voted last week to consider options other than merging its three flagships into one university with single accreditation, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
- The board's decision came in the wake of strong opposition to the proposed merger from students and staff. The regents also voted to go forward with reviews of programs and units across the system.
- U of Alaska's future has been in question since late June, when the state's governor moved to cut an unprecedented $130 million from the system's budget, though the reduction has since been pared back.
When the U of Alaska's regents agreed to move forward with a one-university model, they were facing a 41% reduction in state support over a single year. Since then, however, the governor struck a deal with the system to reduce the cuts to $70 million spread out over three years.
In light of the change, U of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen called for slowing down the timeline to decide on a final option even though he has been a proponent of the one-university model. Staff and students, meanwhile, largely decried the proposal during a public meeting with the regents last week, the Associated Press reported.
Among them was Alex Jorgensen, a political science major at the University of Alaska Anchorage who serves on the college's student government.
He told Education Dive that the system hasn't done enough to include students in the decision-making process. "It has just kind of felt like we're having this one model shoved down our throats without investigating literally any other possible way," he said.
Merging the three institutions may not be the best option because they each serve unique functions within their communities, he added.
Many of the University of Alaska System's campuses are located hours away from each other. That could make consolidation tricky, Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told Education Dive in August. "During many mergers, the campuses are in close proximity," he said. "In this instance, the campuses are hundreds of miles apart."
The regents also have considered proportionately distributing the cuts across the three universities while each retains its own accreditation. And the chancellors of the three universities have floated a third option: forming a consortium. Under that model, they argued, the universities could cut costs while also retaining the relationships they have with their regions.
Opponents of both plans said they wouldn't do enough to reduce administrative overhead. Yet there are also doubts that a merger can achieve needed budget reductions in a short timeframe. Previous mergers within higher ed haven't brought about the hoped-for cost savings and may even drive up tuition by reducing competition.
Getting it right has big implications for the state, which has few public colleges, Jorgensen said. The three University of Alaska System institutions "are really the only options for the majority of Alaskans," he said, "so the stakes are at an all-time high."