Peer-reviewing our University

By Mike Flunker, Editor-in-Chief

What do Alaskans think about the University of Alaska? 

A three-month survey in 2021 of nearly 7,500 Alaskans showed that most approved of the university system, but 75% either think it’s on the wrong track or don’t know where it’s headed. 

“The events of the past three years stay in the minds of the public for a long time,” Robbie Graham, Associate Vice President of Public Affairs, told the Board of Regents at its Feb. 24-25 meeting. 

The UA system has weathered some very public events in recent years. In 2019, the BOR and Gov. Michael Dunleavy worked out a “compact” that cut $70 million over three years, rather than the $134 million in one year originally proposed by the governor. In March 2020, all UA campuses closed due to COVID-19, and in May 2020 UA President Jim Johnsen proposed UAS merge with another campus, likely to have been UAF. 

It was then revealed that Johnsen was the only candidate for president of the University of Wisconsin system. When UW faculty and staff heard and saw what was happening to the UA system, they raised concerns. It was a nationwide story. Johnsen pulled out of the selection for UW president and resigned from his post as UA president, effective July 1, 2020. 

These events and the instability they created affected the trust Alaska residents have in the UA system, according to survey data. While 57% of residents trust UA to act in the public’s best interest, the remainder don’t, or don’t know. Graham pointed out that a significant portion of the public doesn’t know if UA uses state money responsibly. She said trust in higher education is an issue across the country. 

However, more and more Alaskans see the increasing value of higher education, and around 58% of them believe UA meets the same standards as the lower 48, or even does better. Graham said it is essential to promote the value of affordable and accessible higher education, showcase the work and research of UA faculty, and highlight the University’s expertise in the Arctic in these times of a changing climate. 

Conducted between September and November 2021, the survey targeted Alaska residents, current UA students, alumni, and residents living near UAS, UAA, and UAF.  The questions were largely the same, except those living near each campus were asked about the specific campus in their community. 

In her report to the regents, Graham said UA will compare the data to national surveys, host focus groups, and develop new media and messaging about the value of the UA system to Alaskans. 

After the last three years, UA is on more stable ground, and seems to be dedicated to listening to Alaska and promoting the value of its university system. 

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