State of the University: Convocation 2016

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Good afternoon and welcome. It’s good to be here. I’d like to thank our percussion group Ensemble 64-point-eight for being here today. I’d like to also welcome our alumni, those joining us from our community campuses, and UAF locations from across the state.

It’s good to be back. I already know many of you, and look forward to meeting the rest of you in the coming months.

I’d like to thank my predecessor, Mike Powers, for his leadership this past year, and especially for his courage and commitment to campus safety and Title IX issues. Now it’s up to us to continue to work together to create a SAFE and welcoming environment for everyone.

The few weeks I’ve been here as interim chancellor have been busy. My first day included a visit from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Fairbanks campus. My thanks to Michelle Bartlett and Summer Sessions for arranging that historic event.

Shortly afterward, I went to Seattle to tour the Sikuliaq, which is operated by the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Yes, I said COLLEGE of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. The Board of Regents agreed to the name change, which acknowledges the broad role this unit serves and the strength of its programs.

I then traveled to Dillingham to meet with the rural campus directors and listen to how I could support their programs and services. Then it was back to Fairbanks to greet our students and our new faculty.

Seeing everyone is a great pleasure — but it also reminds me of friends and colleagues we’ll no longer see. I’d like to take a moment to reflect on those who have passed away in the last year.

[In memoriam screen]

Thank you.

For those of you who don’t know me, I was a faculty member and then an administrator for 30 years here at UAF. My wife Kay spent her UAF career at Rural Student Services and in Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development. She is here in the audience today.

I moved to UA Statewide in the spring of 2012 to serve as the vice president for academic affairs and research, and I retired almost three years later.

Kay and I began snowbirding to Phoenix, Arizona. We came back regularly to visit our son and enjoy the canoe season in Fairbanks. We were enjoying our no-stress life. So much for retirement.

Many people have asked why we came back to UAF to take this job when I could be relaxing in the desert sun instead.

We did it in part because we had rewarding careers here. In fact Kay and I dated when we were students here and fell in love, and we both graduated from UAF. We love this institution.

But while WE were were retired, all of YOU were facing the difficult task of dealing with budget cuts. Yet you have remained strong and committed to your work and this university. So when the opportunity arose to take this challenge, we said yes, absolutely.

We will work hard for UAF to maintain and grow in its role as Alaska’s student-centered Research University, as America’s Arctic University.

And we will work hard for the university that students recently named the number one outdoor college in Backpacker magazine. That’s a ranking I certainly agree with.

One of the things I love to do most in Alaska is get out in the wilderness, especially in a canoe.

However, you will generally not find me paddling lakes or ponds. I like the challenge of whitewater. That’s my nature.

As you know all too well, the university has been facing a long stretch of rapids. We don’t know exactly how long a stretch remains, but we seem to have farther to go. I’m here to help navigate.

I’m also careful about who I paddle with — do they have the right skills? We do have the right skills here, with our leadership team of vice chancellors, deans, and directors. It’s a group I trust and rely on.

Some here today, including Kay and me, were here in the late 80s and early 90s — what we refer to affectionately as the “desert years” — and we know that we will make it through this time, just as we did then. The university may look different from the way it does today, but we will persevere, and if we do it right, we can be even stronger as we begin our next century.

Throughout this academic year, I want to make sure you have an opportunity to speak your mind, raise concerns and provide feedback. I am committed to shared governance. I know its importance, having served on the Faculty Senate and as chair of curricular affairs.

We also want to hear about your successes, because despite the choppy water we’re in right now, there is still much to celebrate.

The year 2017 marks 100 years we’ve been Alaska’s flagship university. We’ve made tremendous progress in a relatively short time, growing from an outlandish idea to a world-renowned institution.

For example, this past year alone, UAF faculty and scientists discovered a new dinosaur species and examined the DNA from the oldest known human remains in the Arctic (not, I’d like to add, from the same time or place).

UAF’s own Jessica Cherry has been invited for a second round of interviews for the NASA astronaut program. Out of 18,000 applicants, only 100 have made it to this level.

The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration has helped law enforcement search for two missing people in just the past few months.

UAF faculty received two patents this year — one to Jeffrey Rothman for infrasound detection technology, and the second to Keith Cunningham and Peter Webley for an innovative remote-sensing tool.

Cooperative Extension recently took over the Mining and Petroleum Training Service program. The program has trained more than 100,000 people since it began in 1979, and it is a natural fit for UAF and its role in workforce development.

Our Reindeer Research Program is working with Stevens Village, Savoonga and St. Paul to develop commercial reindeer enterprises in Delta and on St. Lawrence and St. Paul islands.

Alaska Sea Grant is working closely with rural communities to deal with the rapid changes in the fishing industry, one of Alaska’s largest private employers.

Our business administration undergraduates have placed above the 90th percentile on the national business exam for more than a decade, and this year placed in the 99th percentile. This is out of SIX HUNDRED universities.

The linguistics program and the School of Education are collaborating on a federal grant to develop a nationally accredited endorsement for teachers of emergent bilinguals — that is, students who speak two languages but who aren’t fluent in them. This is especially important for education in rural Alaska.

The Geophysical Institute acquired HAARP, which will continue to attract scientists from around the world to study the ionosphere above the Arctic.

Matt Wooller secured an NSF award for a multicollector plasma mass spectrometer -- the ONLY one in Alaska. This device will be in the new engineering building.

And for the first time, UAF was named a Tier One national university by U.S. News and World Report. This makes UAF the only Tier One university in Alaska, and puts us in a category with the best universities in the country.

We welcomed hundreds of the world’s top Arctic researchers and policy makers to Arctic Science Summit Week last spring. Thanks to the outstanding efforts of our organizing staff, the U.S. State Department selected Fairbanks as the host of the Arctic Council’s Ministerial Meeting this coming May, where the United States will pass the chairmanship to Finland. This meeting will include the U.S. Secretary of State and delegations from the other seven Arctic nations.

It’s no accident that the Ministerial meeting is happening here. If it’s about the North, we are involved. After all, UAF has the highest number of publications in Arctic research of any university in the world. Our researchers are the pre-eminent experts on climate change and its natural, physical, social and economic impacts on the Arctic. This is a competitive advantage that will be crucial to UAF’s future.

However, that future is not completely clear.

Over the past several months you have heard a lot about President Johnsen’s Strategic Pathways Initiative. It’s a framework for reorganizing the university, and is intended to highlight the unique strengths of each campus. The president’s goal is to improve the overall quality, efficiency and cost effectiveness of the university.

The process began in June, when teams reviewed seven areas. Last week the Board of Regents agreed that President Johnsen should move Phase One in the following directions

  • Further centralize IT functions except for externally funded projects
  • Centralize procurement and research administration at UAF, with service centers at UAA and UA Southeast.
  • Examine centralizing the School of Education with a single dean at a single institution but with programs offered at each university.
  • Maintain engineering and management at both UAA and UAF but collaborate more closely
  • For athletics, the board decided to maintain athletic programs, and two possibilities are being explored
    • First, a waiver to allow UAF and UAA to field fewer than the required 10 teams each
    • Second, a consortium between UAA and UAF that would share teams between the two institutions

The regents are expected to make their final decisions at their November meeting. In the meantime, Phase Two will begin in late September.

We need to continuously assess the cumulative effects of these individual decisions to ensure we’re prepared to fulfill our mission well into the future. Our ultimate goal when we’re done is to have a sustainable and vibrant university.

Another area that has been under consideration is single versus separate accreditation. The board agreed with the president’s recommendation to set aside single accreditation for now until the full impact of Strategic Pathways is realized. It is an issue we will continue to be engaged in.

While we are working our way through Strategic Pathways, there is, of course, the budget.

Every part of the university has been affected by the reductions of the past few years. We have eliminated academic programs and learning centers, and have reduced research support. We have fewer faculty, staff, administrators and student workers. From spring 2014 to spring 2016 alone, we lost 380 employees. Many of you are wearing multiple hats now.

We have early guidance on the FY18 budget from two sources — first from UA Statewide and second from the governor’s office. Last week President Johnsen proposed a $335 million budget request. This is what the legislature supported out of conference committee last spring, and was the governor’s initial proposed FY17 budget. President Johnsen has also proposed a 10 percent tuition increase.

For next year, the governor’s office has provided preliminary guidance that UA should plan on a 5 to 10 percent reduction, which amounts to roughly an $8-$16 million reduction to UAF. These numbers are very early, and we expect additional recommendations from the Legislature, so it’s likely to change.

In addition, we estimate a $9 million increase in our fixed costs, things like utilities and health care. This does NOT include an across-the-board compensation increase.

When we add the proposed general fund reduction and fixed costs increases, we estimate an early budget gap of $17-$26 million, based on the governor’s guidance.

How will we manage if we have another year of cuts?

If the reduction is small, we will not make horizontal cuts. If the reduction is large, every unit will have to share in the pain because there will be no other choice.

We must also aggressively pursue revenue-generating opportunities in research and enrollment growth through new or expanded high-demand programs.

We must continue to increase retention and graduation rates. And we must address tuition. UAF has one of the lowest tuition rates for baccalaureate degrees in the country. Maintaining it is not sustainable, however, and it’s one source of revenue we simply must consider, to address the budget shortfall. However, we must still offer low-cost postsecondary opportunities for certificate and associate programs.

Over the next few months, the leadership team and I will be soliciting ideas from you and from the broader Alaska community. You can help us find the right path forward. We’re planning a campus forum in a couple of weeks to hear from you. I will start the discussion now by suggesting some possible goals to increase our enrollments by 2021. For example

  • 5,000 baccalaureate admitted students
  • At least 2,300 associate-level and baccalaureate-intended students
  • 1,200 graduate students
  • and at least maintain our numbers of nondegree students
  • That’s a 35 percent increase from where we are today, and it helps fill our existing capacity without new facilities and without additional state support.

To achieve this, we must

  • Seek students outside our current target populations.
  • Find ways to attract recent high school graduates more effectively.
  • Provide more UAF financial aid (upper-division in particular), and more federal financial aid advising.
  • And finally, we need to attract Alaskans who have some college but no degree

We should develop and offer new programs to grow enrollment. A few programs that have been suggested to date are

  • a certificate as a medical scribe specialist
  • a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering
  • a master’s degree in marine studies
  • and a bachelor’s and master’s in biomedical sciences

We should also expand high-demand existing programs. A few examples might include

  • Applied associate degrees that more efficiently lead to baccalaureate programs
  • Diesel and heavy equipment
  • And tribal management

There are more programs with growth potential, and I invite your ideas on those and other opportunities.

We’ve made great progress increasing our baccalaureate completion rates over the past decade. The efforts of faculty and staff advisors, services provided for first-year students, and programs that engage our students have significantly helped our retention efforts. Thank you for your dedication to supporting our students, getting them involved, and helping them graduate and go on to achieve their goals.

Your work is paying off. We lead the Statewide system with a 6-year baccalaureate graduation rate of more than 40 percent. We need to increase that rate to 50 percent, but we’re moving in the right direction. More Alaska Performance Scholars and UA Scholars are choosing to come here, and our freshman retention rate is nearly 80 percent, which makes us very competitive with our peers.

We also need to increase our certificate and associate-level graduation rates. One way to do this is to make more scholarships available to those students, perhaps through public-private partnerships. These measures will help improve our reputation, aid our ability to recruit students, and will improve our ranking as a national university. And by the way, it will help us fill the budget gap.

We work hard to meet the demands of the state through our academic programs. We hear repeatedly how much state and local businesses rely on our engineering and management graduates. Our commercial, political and public institutions rely on the communication and critical thinking skills of our liberal arts graduates.

Industry leaders need more skilled and technical workers so they can expand their businesses. Our changing climate and the intense focus on the Arctic is increasing demand for our social, natural, and physical scientists. Alaska needs more of our highly qualified teachers, health care workers and social workers. And we need our fine and performing artists to help us simultaneously question and bring meaning to our experiences and joy to our lives.

It’s a big challenge, and it’s one we can rise to. Our students are certainly rising to the challenge.

The UAF steel bridge team swept all seven categories at its regional competition, and the men’s basketball team was named the Division II Breakout Team of the Year.

Students at Chukchi Campus and their professors, Susan Andrews and John Creed, won several state journalism awards, and the investigation by Brian O’Donoghue and HIS team of journalism students helped free the Fairbanks Four. That story inspired one of our music graduates, Emerson Eads, whose composition had its world premiere right here in this hall during this year’s Summer Fine Arts Festival.

This summer, nine students were the first to earn an occupational endorsement in mining mill operations. This 10-week training program is the first of its kind in the nation.

Our Rural Human Services students volunteered more than 2,000 hours of service in their communities.

With guidance from Denise Thorsen, students built, programmed and successfully launched our first student cube satellite, or cubesat. Some of those students have presented their work at the national level, and others are collaborating with their peers at Bristol Bay Campus to build components of the next cubesat.

It is a wonderful example of the kind of experience students can have at UAF — sometimes even before they are students here.  

For example, the Rural Alaska Honors Institute just had its largest graduating class ever. Sixty-eight high school students earned 679 UAF college credits with a GPA of 3.47.

So, as a student-centered university, what can each one of us do?

As many of you know, last year’s back-and-forth budget process in the Legislature showed that while there is some disagreement about how we fund the university, we do have some strong champions in the Legislature.

It’s important that legislators hear from us about the increasingly difficult choices we must make if the budget is reduced further. We must ask them to create a revenue stream this year to address the budget gap. And if they are not willing to do so, then we must ask them what kind of future the state will have without a strong university.

When you contact your legislator, please remember to do it on your own time, in your own words. But I encourage you to speak up. Make your opinions heard. We cannot afford to be silent as a university or as citizens of this great state.

For my part, I will be working with my leadership team, President Johnsen, and the university community to identify ways we can preserve our core programs and services to remain strong and serve the people of Alaska.

We will continue to work on increasing enrollment and donor and alumni giving. We will continue to work on legislative support.

There are opportunities here.

High school graduation rates are expected to start rising next year. The two new F-35 squadrons are expected to bring about 3,500 people to the Interior, plus more than $500 million in construction. This will benefit the entire community, which means it will also benefit UAF.

Finally, we need to continue to grow research.

There’s some good news on this front. Our research expenditures last year were 5 percent higher than the year before.

As we look for opportunities, we must be bold. Judge Wickersham was bold when he used $100 of his own money to create the cornerstone in 1915. WE need to be bold as we enter our next century.

We need your best ideas and your engagement. We need people like our faculty who recently received promotion and tenure.

I’d like to recognize those individuals for their achievement. Congratulations, and thank you.

Two words — “thank you” — perhaps the easiest and most effective thing you can do to help. Acknowledge the hard work and contributions of your colleagues, staff, and student workers.

If there are things you can change to improve a process or your work environment, do it.

Many of you are feeling the effects of taking on more work. This could mean decreased response times and, sometimes, decreased service. We are all going to have to be more patient and give each other the benefit of the doubt during this challenging time. Take a breath. Recognize and acknowledge what others are experiencing.

I ask you to take care of this university, and of each other.

It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that UAF’s campuses are safe, welcoming and inclusive. There is no place for discrimination here. Period.

The university’s non-discrimination policy now includes gender identity as a protected category. We have gender-inclusive restrooms and housing, and we will continue to improve facilities in this regard. And survivors of sexual harassment and assault can get free and confidential help from the new Resource and Advocacy Center on the Fairbanks campus.

While we have made progress, there is still much work to be done. I recently joined two dozen students, faculty and staff for Green Dot bystander training. I learned many ways that I can make a difference in reducing violence. I encourage all of you to take that training. You can find out how at the information table in the hall when we’re done here.

It takes a community to keep a community safe.

On New Year’s Eve, we will kick off our 100th anniversary as Alaska’s flagship university, and we will celebrate important milestones throughout the year. We are a university that was founded by a cast of interesting characters. It’s because of their strong will and foresight that we are here today.

That, right there, shows you who we are. We’ve had our share of ups and downs, but we have always continued to go forward.

Thank you to eLearning and University Relations for that wonderful video.

UAF has been a cornerstone of Alaska for the past 100 years, and we will continue to be a cornerstone in the next 100. One way is through our fundraising efforts, and working with our 32,000 alumni around the world.

I am pleased to tell you that the Alumni Association has increased its membership by 23 percent in the last 18 months. And over the past 10 years, UAF donors have contributed more than $100 million. Students are the heart of our Centennial fundraising mission. We are nearing our goal to raise an additional $3 million in scholarships, almost doubling student support.

These efforts are crucial. Currently, students who receive scholarships at UAF each year represent just 6 percent of the student body, a percentage we must increase.

The Board of Regents has approved bonding to complete the engineering building, which is very good news. A lot of people have worked hard for this building, including many at the College of Engineering and Mines, Design and Construction, fundraising co-chairs Janet Weise and Ethan Schutt, and many others. The fundraising committee helped raise more than $2 million to complete the fourth floor for the Alaska Center for Energy and Power.

A second initiative, the Troth Yeddha’ Legacy, has raised nearly $700,000 toward the short-term goal of $5 million. This project is for an indigenous studies center that will be a leading academic resource that welcomes Alaska Native students and peoples of all cultures.

Their giving — and your giving — helps ensure our university will be providing students a world-class education for the next 100 years.

When President Johnsen asked me to serve in this interim position, he gave me four charges.

Secure funding to finish the engineering building. Done, and I look forward to seeing students IN class IN that building in the spring of 2018.

He asked me to continue and expand UAF’s pre-eminence as an Arctic research institution, to continue to address safety issues, including Title IX, and finally, to celebrate our accomplishments through our centennial.

I’ve added four more to that list.

Stay engaged in Strategic Pathways, to prepare us for the next 100 years.

Ensure that the voice of shared governance — your voice — is heard in decision making.

Remain committed to academic freedom.

And continue to focus on student learning and engagement.

It’s a lot to do in one year, but we will be doing it together. That’s part of what drew me back here — the opportunity to work with all of you, and your expertise, to keep UAF an indispensable part of Alaska.

We will continue to offer quality programs. We will continue to provide access to all we serve. We will continue to invest in making our campuses safe and inclusive. We will continue to prepare Alaskans for Alaska’s jobs.

UAF is ready to help our state for the next century.

Is it going to be easy? No. But remember I don’t paddle with just anybody. I know we will move beyond this, and reach smooth waters.

I am grateful and honored to have been given the chance to serve with you once again. I thank you for coming today and I thank you for your support.

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