UA President, Board of Regents memorandums demand support from chancellors

Published: Sep. 24, 2019 at 6:32 PM AKDT
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Amid a year of budget turmoil, the University of Alaska’s three chancellors have been told to not speak independently of the UA president and Board of Regents, sparking fears from critics that their independence is being stifled.

On Feb. 13, the governor announced a budget that would have cut $130 million from the university’s budget. Five days later, UA President Dr. Jim Johnsen sent a memorandum obtained by Channel 2 to the university’s three chancellors, instructing them on how communications should be made during budget debates.

“In this time of acute budgetary stress, please note that the Board has reserved a number of matters to itself, including the determination of budget requests and allocations, as well as what degree and certificate programs will be offered at each University,” the memo reads. “Communications on such issues must be coordinated, must respect and preserve the Board’s prerogatives, and thus must be reviewed and approved by the president.”

Monique Musick, a spokesperson for UA Statewide Administration, confirms the memorandum was sent by Johnsen but says it makes sense for the president to be in charge of communications for the board. There may be three separately accredited universities in the UA system but it is a single legal entity under the Alaska Constitution.

“That memo was sent at the direction of the Board and reminds the chancellors of long-standing Regents' Policy requiring that all three universities operate and communicate in a coordinated fashion, under the direction of the president,” Musick wrote in an email to Channel 2. “The goal was to create the clear expectation that chancellors, as officers of the UA System, work collaboratively, in the best interests of students and the entire State of Alaska, rather than pursuing separate legislative or political agendas.”

That meant Johnsen would speak to the Legislature on behalf of the board and that the chancellors shouldn’t advocate for their own universities separately.

On Tuesday, Dr. Daniel White, the chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said he would “reserve comment” if the policy had impeded his ability to communicate independently. He explained the context of the proposed deep cuts to the university needed to be considered.

However, White did express concern about how broadly the directive from the UA president and board could be interpreted as chancellors are often asked to communicate on a whole host of matters.

In June, the Legislature passed a budget which would have left university funding virtually unchanged. On June 29, the governor vetoed $135 million from the university’s budget, sending administrators into a panic.

After multiple emergency board meetings, a single-accreditation model for the university was endorsed by Johnsen and pushed forward by the board.

On July 30, the three university chancellors, speaking to the regents, proposed an alternative “consortium” model that would keep the three universities’ separate accreditations and allow reductions to be made locally.

Johnsen sent another memorandum to the chancellors two days later reminding them of the roles of the board, the president and the chancellors themselves as the effort to cut costs took shape. “I know you appreciate that the very survival of the University of Alaska depends on the success of this enormous and challenging undertaking,” read the memo from Johnsen.

He finished with a warning to the chancellors: “If you are unable to support the Board’s decision or implementation efforts, or cannot commit to our approach or these expectations, please advise me in writing immediately so that we may arrange for a smooth transition.”

Of the Aug. 1 memo, White said, “There were aspects of it that I was surprised to receive,” before continuing to say again that the context of major cuts matter, “This has been a very difficult time for the university, through the summer and the fall.”

Since the email, the governor and John Davies, the Chair of the Board of Regents, signed a controversial agreement that would see $70 million cut from the university’s budget over three years instead of $135 million in one year.

“Obviously circumstances have changed significantly since that email was sent,” read an email from Musick sent on Monday. “However, it seems reasonable to ask high ranking officials of the University to get behind the Board's direction, particularly in what was a crisis situation.”

“The president did ask the chancellors for unequivocal support of Board direction during the height of the veto crisis,” she wrote.

White does not recall if the change of circumstance from acute budget stress resulted in a change of direction from the UA president and board over how the chancellors are expected to communicate.

On Sept. 13, the Board of Regents stepped back slightly from the single accreditation model, leaving the option open that a restructuring model similar to the one advocated by the chancellors could be approved in November.

For some UAA faculty members, there have been concerns that the directives from the board and UA president, have essentially stifled the chancellors from advocating directly for their universities and placed too much power in too few hands.

“We know that the senior administrators of UAA, whom we support, cannot speak freely, so we must speak for them,” said Dr. Forrest Nabors, a UAA professor and Chair of the Committee on Governance and Funding Reform, to a Senate State Affairs Committee meeting on Friday.

Nabors advocated for a decentralized UA system that would see each university run by a board of trustees under the Board of Regents.

“There is a reason why you and the public have not heard this perspective directly from the chancellors or administrators of our three universities,” he said. “Statewide officials order them to keep their candid views to themselves.”

Paul Layer, vice president of academics, students and research, says the message from the UA president does the exact opposite, asking for collaboration from the chancellors.

“The Board has heard directly from chancellors at various meetings, and hears from faculty, staff, students and the general public through numerous channels, including mail, email, and public testimony,” Layer said in a prepared statement.

Nabors said the Legislature should step in and compel the senior administrators of the universities to come to committee hearings to speak freely of the Board of Regents and Johnsen.

“Then I suggest that you ask them pointed questions about the performance of the current structure of UA governance and administration. Don't take our word for it; ask them in a formal hearing like this.”

Channel 2 reached out to Dr. Jim Johnsen for comment but was told that he is on annual leave and he did not respond before deadline. Dr. Cathy Sandeen, the chancellor of UAA, and Dr. Rick Caulfield, the chancellor of UAS, also did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
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