Southeast Alaskans consider what would be lost in UAS campus merger

A panel of women leads a discussion at the Men's Gathering in the Egan Library at the University of Alaska Southeast on June 30, 2019.
A panel discussion at the Egan Library at the University of Alaska Southeast on June 30, 2019. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

In Juneau, University of Alaska Southeast students, faculty and alumni spent much of last week debating a proposal to merge the university with one of the other University of Alaska campuses to cut costs. On Thursday, the university’s board of regents voted to delay moving forward with the merger and instead decided to look into how much it would cost.

There is a lot of opposition to the idea of the merger in Southeast Alaska. The city and borough of Juneau voted to publicly oppose it. In a special assembly meeting City Manager Rorie Watt said a merger would mean the loss of local leadership and it would make the university less appealing for students.

“I wouldn’t be in Juneau without the university, the attractiveness to it as prospective students,” assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs said. “I can think of police, firefighters, business owners in our community that were all in my graduating class and so it’s a real magnet to bring folks to Juneau.”

After taking public testimony on the merger, city leaders in Ketchikan and university employees in Sitka — where UAS has satellite campuses — also objected.

This isn’t the first time the idea to merge UAS with another campus has come up.

Sage Logan is an accounting student at UAS in Juneau. He’s watched past efforts to bring up the merger. He says this time around it seems like the Board of Regents is willfully avoiding getting meaningful public comment from students and faculty.

“Just the way that they’re setting this up and continuing to propose it. Like, even through this pandemic, like, it feels like they’re taking advantage of the fact that we’re all separated,” he said.

There’s also clear opposition among some faculty at the university.

“I find it pretty outrageous,” said UAS sociology professor Lora Vess. “The loss of UAS would be such a loss to the state of Alaska and to the students of this region and to communities and to tribes to just have some of the regents seemingly tired of process want to push it through without actual consideration of what the role this university plays.”

As for cutting costs, Vess has one idea.

“What about those upper level administrative positions? Some of them have taken furloughs, which is a good important step. But, but perhaps it’s time to do a little bolder salary decreases as well,” she said.

Meanwhile, other stakeholders are proposing alternatives to the merger. Alaska Native leaders proposed two alternatives. One being that UAS becomes the centralized hub for rural campuses.

“I would suggest that the UA system let the rural campuses lead and own distance education because our rural campuses need the distance education,” said Joe Nelson, Sealaska Corporation’s board chair.

Nelson and others also suggested that the university could be designated a tribal college.

“From a Native perspective, I’m just trying to picture around the board of regents table there and then the core, you know, decision makers,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of folks that are closely tied to our 10,000 years of history that we’ve had in Southeast Alaska.”

But as the public continues to explore alternative options to merging the campus, the University of Alaska system is facing significant financial problems. There have been deep cuts to state funding, enrollment is down and the coronavirus pandemic has added to that burden.

On Friday, The UA board of regents voted to cut over 40 programs, including completely eliminating sociology. That would make UA the only public university system in the nation without a sociology program.

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