UAA Faculty Senate Votes 32-0 to Create the Committee

(An account of the proceedings of the UAA Faculty Senate, Friday, March 1, 2019, on the question of reform.)

Senate President Maria Williams yielded the floor to Dr. Forrest Nabors who rose to introduce Resolution 030119-1, “that the Faculty Senate establish a new Ad Hoc committee that will critically study the UA system and will research reforms that will strengthen UAA and put UAA on a sustainable, new path.”

1. Legal Basis of the Resolution

Article V, sections 7, 8 and 9 of the Constitution of the UAA Faculty Senate govern the creation of ad hoc committees. Also, Nabors read aloud Board of Regents Policy 01.02.010 “Freedom of Speech,” which says:

An environment of free and honest inquiry is essential to the functioning and the mission of the university. The board and the university therefore acknowledge, affirm, and espouse the right of freedom of speech as guaranteed in the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Alaska. The essential purpose of the university is to engage in the pursuit of truth, the advancement of learning and the dissemination of knowledge. To achieve this purpose, all members of the university must be assured of the constitutionally protected right to question, speculate, and comment, as well as the right to criticize the university….

2. Origin of the Resolution

By many respected measures of state spending on higher education, the University of Alaska system depends on a higher percentage of its budget on appropriations from government than almost all other public systems of higher education in the country. So, when the price of oil precipitously dropped in 2014, while oil production was already declining, oil taxes, the primary revenue to the state, were expected to dwindle. The university expected budget cuts.

We, the Faculty Senate, began pressing the administration for a plan to address the new financial realities in 2014. We asked about structural reform. The response of the administration was that we should apply pressure on the state government to fund the university at our desired level as the administration was so doing, which is to say, to lobby.

But we believed that our reliance upon lobbying to fund the university in its current form was impractical, unsustainable and wrong. The university needed reforms. Many of us, including Professors Frank Jeffries, Abel Bult-Ito, Diane Hirshberg, Nalinaksha Bhattacharyya and Dr. Nabors proposed altering the governance or funding basis of the university. The administration ignored or rejected these reform ideas and offered none of its own.

The administration did implement one plan called Strategic Pathways, but this, in our view, was not a plan for reform but rather, doubled-down on the current system, aiming at consolidating the current system further. We objected to this plan, and in 2017, in response to the intransigence of the administration, we delivered a vote of no confidence in the president of the university. The UAF Faculty Senate quickly followed suit and delivered a no confidence vote of their own.

Since 2014 we have learned that the administration of UA is resolved to defend the current system of higher education, which we believe is obviously broken, and to oppose reform. This is the main reason why UAA, at least, is in decline.

One example of the UA administration’s determination to short-circuit any attempt to precipitate reform: On March 9, 2017 Dr. Nabors was invited to testify to the Alaska Senate Finance subcommittee on higher education. He was given five minutes, which he used to describe problems endemic to the UA system and to urge reform. Unbeknownst to Dr. Nabors, President Jim Johnsen of UA had previously arranged a two-way phone connection, was listening, and then was given unlimited time by the subcommittee chair to dismiss the testimony of Dr. Nabors. No opportunity to respond was given to Dr. Nabors.

Yet, the warnings of Dr. Nabors in his prepared testimony in 2017 have come true. He said then:

Plentiful funds in the past disguised an organizational problem that is revealing itself now. UA Statewide has its own budget and is the gatekeeper for the budgets of the universities. Under conditions of greater scarcity, UA statewide is institutionally incentivized to centralize and starve the universities in order to protect itself. The budget of statewide, which teaches no students nor conducts any research, exceeds the budget of UAS, which does.

Today, the College of Arts and Sciences at UAA teaches about half of all undergraduate students attending college in Alaska. The College’s share of appropriation from the state government is $5million from a total FY18-19 appropriation to UA of well over $300million per year. Despite its small share of annual appropriation, CAS is under pressure to reduce its allocation of state funds. Several weeks ago, CAS departments were warned of a contingency plan to reduce up to 70% of adjunct and term faculty. Tenured and tenure track faculty are being asked to reduce their research activity, unless funded from external grants, and to increase their teaching loads. 

As a result, we in CAS are preparing to fire our friends. Our best faculty will be the most tempted to leave for other institutions outside Alaska. In public meeting, some faculty have recently announced their intention to leave UAA. Good faculty candidates are less likely to accept work under these conditions and replace departing faculty.

Hence, CAS is losing its character as a liberal arts college and is reverting to a community college, which is an unnecessary disservice to students and to Alaska.

But the anticipated wave of departing faculty is not new to CAS or to UAA generally. It is a continuation of overall decline. Good faculty have already left the university. In 2017 Professor Frank Jeffries studied faculty turnover rates. In three and one half years before December 2016, 47% of UAA faculty turned over.

We have also learned that the administration of UA discourages or prohibits the administrations of UAA, UAF and UAS from venturing opinion in public or even in private that conflicts with the interests of UA administration. Dr. Nabors does not believe that the state government is aware of the extent to which these administrations are required to muzzle their own views and are commanded to toe the party line, whether or not it conflicts with their best judgment. The president of the university controls the flow of information to the state government, and therefore controls policy on higher education. 

In his prepared testimony in 2017, Dr. Nabors warned of this:

This organizational structure also discourages the administrations and faculties of the universities to independently search for solutions to the funding problem, unless those solutions are aligned with the institutional interests of UA statewide. To do otherwise could be deemed as insubordination to statewide leadership.

The administrations of UAA, UAF and UAS all report directly to UA statewide administration and are constrained by their employment relation from speaking candidly. This was recently confirmed by a memorandum dated February 18, sent by the president to the administrations of all three MAUs. In that memorandum, the president reminds the subordinate administrations of his right to terminate their employment, while prohibiting them from “soliciting political, public or private support” (emphasis added) for their views that are inconsistent with UA statewide administration.

What does this mean? Dr. Nabors averred that the UAA Faculty Senate is the only entity within the UA system that has any significant influence independent of direct oversight by UA statewide to study and propose reform. If we don’t do it, nobody else can.

Dr. Nabors said that in the recent past, his own academic career has enjoyed a measure of good fortune and he too feels the pressure to leave UAA. But when he joined UAA, he had decided that if he were granted tenure, he would plant his flag in Alaska and spend the rest of his career here. He believes in UAA and intends to fight for our institution.

He knows that other faculty who have not left and do not want to leave, share his affection and confidence in the potential of UAA. He encouraged his colleagues to band together and work for reform. This is our home.  

3. The Goal and Strategy of the Committee

Our goal is to create momentum towards reform of higher education in Alaska. This goal might seem ambitious but the consequences of doing nothing are certain and are worse than trying and failing. 

The work of the committee will guide our conclusions, but Dr. Nabors acknowledged the widespread belief that UAA needs greater independence from UA. We believe that the primary source of our problems is not a lack of overall funding from state government per se, but the structure of governance and financing of our institution. 

To be successful, the committee will put itself in the position as a conductor of an ever-widening orchestra. We will crowd-source the work of studying the UA system and studying reform. We will make our own contributions to the effort, but we will draw interest, support and contributions from the broadest possible constituency and organize their contributions. If we do this, we will put our research in the best possible position to inform public opinion and policy.

The guiding principles of the committee will be;

> Protect our UAA administration. Dr. Nabors expressed confidence in the administration of UAA. If this committee is successful, we will unchain their creativity and independence as administrators. They will make better decisions than the administration of UA. We believe in them because we know them, and they know UAA. We have many assets upon which a superior institution can be built.

But our administrators at UAA cannot be part of the work of the committee, or, as UA administration recently and directly threatened, they risk termination. We do not want to expose them to this risk. We will need them if and when our work is successful.

> Fidelity to law, BOR policies and regulations. We intend to conduct our work within its legal limitations, but Dr. Nabors acknowledged that the law, BOR policies and regulations give all the institutional advantages to the UA administration, especially to the president, and especially if the president or the Board were to abuse their offices to limit honest dissent.

Dr. Nabors related that in his judgment as a political scientist, the president of the university has almost monarchic power over higher education in Alaska, with weak limitations. The BOR has authority but little power. This is itself a good metric of our broken system as the following examples illustrate: 

BOR Policy 2.01.020(E) explicitly allows the president to violate BOR policies, and allows the BOR to annul such a violation by a simple majority. This would be the same as if the Constitution of the United States included a provision that allowed the president to violate the Constitution, and allowed a presidential council to annul the violation ex post facto by a majority. This provision alone gives the president of the university almost unlimited authority.

The president is explicitly given the right to approve the constitutions of the faculty senates of the MAUs (BOR Policy 3.01.010). The right to approve implies the right to disapprove, which is to say, to dissolve a constitution that has been duly framed and ratified by those assemblies. This right given to the president is tantamount to the right to prorogue or dissolve legislatures.

The Board of Regents is obliged to “defend, indemnify and hold harmless all of its officers and employees…from any and all liability or damage arising out of acts on behalf of the university done within the course and scope of duty” (1.02.040). But in effect, this provision only protects the president and board and does not protect positions subordinate to the president, for abuse or misconduct.

The policies of the Board of Regents and the provisions of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the The University of Alaska and UNAC, prescribe many grounds for disciplinary action or termination of positions subordinate to the president. If the UA system commenced an action within the system against such an employee for abuse or misconduct, the hold harmless provision would not protect that employee, since the prosecutor in that case would be the system itself. The president is the supreme judge of all such cases (see for example, BOR Policy 1.02.080(4), CBA 7.2.4).

In the event of abuse of office or misconduct by the president, there is no prescribed recourse for employees of UA within the system other than the processes of which the president alone constitutes the court of highest appeal. He would be judge of his own conduct, if a case were brought against him. The Board of Regents has the right to appoint the president, which implies the right to remove, but the president is assigned the role of executive officer of the board that has the sole authority – and only an implied authority, at that – to audit his own conduct (2.01.010).

If an employee seeks redress outside the UA system against an abuse of power by the president, the president may then rely upon the hold harmless provision to indemnify himself. Hence, although the president is the highest compensated employee of the UA system, he may draw upon the resources of the system to defend himself against his own abuses, while employees must pay for redress from their own personal funds.

Furthermore, the state of Alaska allows the prevailing party in civil cases to collect attorney fees. Therefore, an aggrieved employee must risk personal bankruptcy solely to seek redress in the only venue where it can be found – outside the system, while the president – with his $300,000 to $400,000 salary per year – may enjoy the best legal representation that the UA system can buy, and at no risk to his personal finances, whether he wins or loses a case brought against his person in civil court.

> Transparency. As difficult as these conditions may be, and are themselves illustrative of the need for reform, we believe that we have a good chance to prevail if our case draws the attention of Alaskans. We trust in their common sense. The facts are our best advantage in convincing Alaskans that our system of higher education requires reform. We do not intend to conceal our case from view. It is the defenders of the current system who must mislead, hide inconvenient facts and silence dissenting views.

> Intellectual honesty. We are open to abandoning or embracing conclusions as our work so leads us. We want good policy, for the good of students and the state of Alaska, above any other consideration.

4. The Vote

After a brief colloquy with members of the Senate, Dr. Nabors urged his colleagues to vote unanimously in favor of the resolution, arguing that such a vote would be a strong statement itself on behalf of the UAA faculty for reform. 

He appealed to the senate president to have the secretary enter the tabulations of yeas and nays into the record of the minutes, which was granted. 

The vote was held and the secretary announced the results; 32 senators in favor, no senators opposed.

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