Faculty union fears loss of accreditation if financial exigency is declared

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - United Academics Local 4996, the largest higher education faculty union in the state, says it fears that the massive budget cuts the University of Alaska faces could result in a loss of accreditation for some programs.

“If we don't have an accredited university why would students come here?” asked Abel Bult-Ito, President of United Academics chapter in Alaska.

UA President Jim Johnsen describes the effects of Governor Dunleavy's $144 million veto of the university budget.

The main factor at stake are the so-called teach-out arrangements, which accreditors require of institutions in order to ensure that students get what they pay for. Teach-out arrangements require a university to provide a path for its students who are enrolled in a program to complete the program, even if it means paying for them to switch institutions.

“We as a university make commitments to these students that they can complete the degree programs that they enrolled in and now that is all up in the air,” said Bult-Ito. “And that makes it very uncertain times for our students and that is really really hurtful to them and their future.”

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, the President of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the federally designated accreditation agency for Alaska and six other states, said that his organization was going to be working closely with the university if it does declare “financial exigency” on July 15, should Governor Dunleavy’s vetoes be upheld. A declaration of financial exigency would allow the university administration to cut positions without the usual notification requirements.

“Like hawks, we're gonna be paying attention to the details of those plans,” said Dr. Ramaswamy.

He said that the role of the NWCCU isn’t to bully the university, but to work with it to achieve the best student outcomes.

“We're not the kind that come and beat up on you, but the threat of loss of accreditation is absolutely there,” he said. “We work with you to make sure that every opportunity to demonstrably show us that you're very thoughtful, you're going through this process and you pay attention.”

While Dr. Ramaswamy said that there is no specific requirement for the qualifications of the faculty or learning environment, the NWCCU’s primary focus is on student outcomes. If cuts go through, there is a risk of a decline in the quality of education.

He used a hypothetical example from his field, entomology. If resources are cut, students won’t have the same hands-on skills to make them successful in the workplace. That would lead the NWCCU to cancel accreditation.

“If you're [a hypothetical university administrator] gonna say that now we're just gonna have them study these books or whatever, go to the library, and never touch an insect or look at an insect or catch an insect or cut it open, or whatever,” he said. “All of these agreed-upon curricula and courses and experiences and things like tha t-- we're really look at those kinds of things as well."

It is expected that up to 1,300 staff could be cut from the UA system, according to numbers from the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Anchorage.

In any case, the loss of accreditation would not be immediate -- instead it would come about over the case of several months or even years, as the university and the NWCCU determined the quality of the new program offerings.

The bottom line, says Dr. Ramaswamy, is that the university will need to make wise decisions in the interests of the students if it wants to keep its accreditation -- assuming the governor’s vetoes are upheld.

“I paraphrase Bill Clinton's 1992 election, ‘It's the economy, stupid.’” he said. "I started saying ‘It's the students, stupid.’ And really it is.”

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