Along with coronavirus concerns, students and staff at the University of Alaska Anchorage are also facing budget uncertainty.
University leaders are proposing to eliminate degree programs to reduce spending, and they say the process is expected to continue — at least for right now — even with students leaving dorms and classes moving online in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As university faculty and students in those programs wait to see if the proposals will become reality, they say feel demoralized.
UAA professor Audrey Taylor stood next to a photo of a pair of howler monkeys in early March, as she explained to her class of about 30 college students how to estimate the population of endangered animals.
It was two days before the start of a weeklong spring break, and before the University of Alaska system announced widespread changes, including moving most in-person classes online for the rest of the semester, in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Already, students in Taylor’s class said they were stress and concerned. That’s because the class, conservation biology, is key for a major that university leaders are proposing to eliminate.
“It’s very demotivating, I guess, because you’re putting all this energy into teaching these students who are potentially going to be finishing a degree program in a department that’s no longer going to exist,” Taylor said.
UAA is in the middle of deciding which degree programs it will recommend cutting. So far, UAA deans have proposed eliminating nine degree and certificate programs. The provost wants to erase more. On both of their lists of cuts is environment and society — the degree program for Taylor’s department.
The university chancellor still needs to make her recommendations, and the university system’s governing board will ultimately decide what stays and what goes.
Taylor said she didn’t expect her program to be proposed for elimination.
“I think we were pretty shocked that the entire program was recommended for deletion,” she said.
UAA deans and the provost say there isn’t enough demand for the program, and the university can’t sustain it. They say students can learn environmental sciences as part of another bachelor’s degree program called natural sciences.
Taylor said there are roughly 75 students in her program. One of those students is Grace Wyatt, a junior at UAA.
“I should be really focusing on trying to find summer internships right now, but that’s kind of been pushed off because I’m trying to save my degree program,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt said she cried after she learned her degree program was up for elimination. She said she’s devastated, angry and confused.
“Our professors created this program to prepare students to become scientists in Alaska,” she said. “They went around talking to all of the industries around Alaska, and asked them what they wanted students to be learning, and that’s how they created our curriculum. It’s super-involved with climate change. It’s super involved with the species of Alaska.”
Another student, senior Nabi Qureshi, said she was spending a significant amount of time trying to figure out next steps and how students can rally to save environmental studies at Alaska’s largest university.
“I feel like I have spent a lot of time doing just research. There’s 15 tabs open on my laptop right now, just because, like I said, there’s so many different directions where this could go. There’s so many different steps,” she said. “So it’s taken up a lot of my time.”
Once final decisions are made, UAA programs won’t disappear immediately. The university needs to give faculty notice of job cuts, and it needs to provide students already enrolled in programs with a path to a degree.
UAA junior Grayson Bacon said he’s waiting to hear what that path might look like. A graduate of Palmer High School, he wants to become a wilderness ranger.
He said it’s not really financially feasible to transfer to another university at this point.
“I’m hoping to ride it out because I only have a year left, but I’m not really sure how it’s all going to go. There’s not a lot of communication as to what is going to happen,” he said.
Taylor said she’s telling students to talk to their advisers and sign up for classes early to make sure they can finish the major.
Aside from giving lectures and grading papers, she said she also feels like she’s now entrenched in a fight to save her program and possibly her job.
“It feels like some kind of guerrilla warfare here, where we’re going all guns blazing to try to figure out what the best angle to save environmental studies is,” she said.
Now Taylor is also in the midst of figuring out how to continue to teach her classes, and move them online. She said she worries that the program reviews — and the long-term process to reshape UAA — are going to get lost in the shuffle as the university responds to coronavirus.
“It just feels chaotic,” she said.
UAA is currently taking community input on the proposed program cuts. The UA Board of Regents is expected to make final decisions in June. The next fiscal year starts July 1.
A UA spokesperson said to expect in-person meetings to be moved to virtual meetings.
Other programs up for elimination include the master’s in anthropology and bachelor’s in theater.