Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How Not To Improve The University

The title of Dermot Cole's article in the ADN today set me off already:  University needs to stop running campuses like independent fiefdoms.    It's fine til we get to the word 'fiefdom.'  That word is loaded.  I imagine faculty at all campuses are much more united on the idea of that word applying to the university's statewide administration.  But that has me falling into the same trap.  Fighting words make people defensive and they swing back.

OK, headlines are usually written by editors, not by the columnists, so let's not hold Cole responsible there.  And I'd note, that more often than not, I tend to agree with Cole and like how he writes.  And I'd further note that Cole's brother is a faculty member at UAF, so he has a little more access to what's happening at the university than most reporters.

Fairbanks versus Anchorage Rivalry

But the Fairbanks/Anchorage rivalry is long and deep.  Fairbanks was the original campus.  Anchorage came later.  But as time progressed, the city, then municipality, of Anchorage grew to surpass Fairbanks in population and as the center of business and government in the state.  Anchorage has a population of 300,000 while Fairbanks (the North Star Borough)  is one third of that  at about 100,000.  (Juneau's population is around 31,000.)

Yet despite Anchorage's student body long ago growing larger than Fairbanks', Fairbanks has continued to get a higher budget allocations than Anchorage.   For example:

From UA Budget Proposal for 2016 p. 52

UAF had $40 million more than UAA, though the Fairbanks community is have the size of Anchorage (not counting Matsu even).  And that doesn't include the extra $30 million for Statewide that is also housed in Fairbanks.  I understand that the University is everything to Fairbanks and that all the legislators coalesce around it at budget time.  And the natural gravity of the state favors Anchorage and that appears to make Fairbanks more protective of what it has.  Fairbanks fought really hard to prevent UAA from having doctoral programs, for example.  Fairbanks has seen its strength, and rightfully so, in research.  They still get maybe six times the external research funding that UAA gets.  Though Anchorage faculty would note that they have heavier teaching loads and many came to UAA because they wanted to teach.  Blocking UAA from getting doctoral programs, was seen in Anchorage, as a way to preserve that research advantage since doctoral students are helpful when you're trying to get grants to do research. 

So there is a lot of tension between UAA and UAF.  From the Anchorage perspective, it seems like UAA is fighting for what its size and location rightly deserve and that UAF is fighting to preserve what it has against natural forces for more to flow to Anchorage.  Fairbanks sees itself as 'the flagship campus'  as the serious research campus.    This is the background to anything about the University of Alaska system.  Much of the discussion here makes no sense without knowing it.   

Cole's Article
But let's get to Cole's basic argument in the article:  that the University of Alaska should just be, in essence, one institution with, satellite campuses that are run centrally, from Fairbanks, I guess.  And specifically all the campuses should have the same calendar each semester.

Centralization versus Decentralization
A basic truism in organizations is the ever present tension between centralization and decentralization.  Centralization helps make things consistent over a whole system which has advantages.  Up to a point, quantities of scale and lack of duplication make a centralized system more efficient.   But decentralization allows for much more flexibility and the capacity to meet local needs.  Change is much slower with centralization because everything has to be approved from the top.   All organizations go through a continual struggle to balance the forces for centralization against the forces for decentralization.

 Do we need a single UA main campus?
The specific failing of the university system that Cole was upset about was the lack of a single calendar for all the campuses.   I'm not convinced this is a critical problem.  I do know that attempts to make all courses across the state with the same name equal is a big deal.  Just in Anchorage, as part of the UAA system, I know lower level course taught at Eagle River with the same name as those taught on campus, weren't the same course, because say, the UAA econ department,  didn't have control over who taught the courses in Eagle River.  So when students moved to the higher level courses, they didn't have the same preparation as those taught on campus.  And Cole acknowledged this as a harder nut to crack.

Do we all need the same calendar?
But I'm not convinced everyone having the same calendar is a critical academic problem.  I do know that not being able to get the classes they need to graduate in four or five years can be a problem for students.  Some of this is a program issue.  When I counseled students, we set up a schedule for all their classes over the two to four years (this was a graduate program with mostly part time students), I made sure they knew which classes were offered which semester and the consequences of not taking them in a particular sequence.  Programs need to articulate that better and make sure students understand that from the beginning.

For students taking distance classes at another campus?  Why does the calendar have to be the same?  A later start and finish in one campus may give a student more time to get the work done.  In some ideal world, this would be nice, but the benefits of everything being the same don't seem to me to outweigh the loss of flexibility and responsiveness to local needs.  For people who have a strong need for order, I get it.  But we're in the business of education, not in the business of making everything orderly.  I think there is some sort of vision that students should be able to switch from one campus to the other as if they were all the same.  Given the distance between campuses, this is not something that will happen with in class classes.  With distance classes it's doable, but it doesn't require the calendars to be identical.  There are other kinds of coordination that seem more practical.  For instance UAA and the Anchorage School District have coordinated their spring breaks which means Anchorage families with kids in K-12 and UAA are off at the same time.  Would we want to tell every school district in Alaska they have to coordinate with the University schedule?   And there are a number of shorter courses or intensive courses that start or finish at different times. 

The sentence that got me to write this post was
"Experience elsewhere demonstrates that statewide programs can be run out of a single campus and exist in multiple places.  Private businesses and state agencies do this."  
I'll skip the issue of how businesses run or even state agencies compared to universities.  They aren't the same animal and I've written about this before

Where are state college calendars coordinated?

Let's focus on 'experience elsewhere.'  Which statewide university systems is Cole talking about?  I started checking to see which western states have a single calendar across all their state campuses.

University of California and the California State University are totally different systems.  But even in the University of California system, not only do UCB (Berkeley) and UCLA (Los Angeles) have different schedules, but UCB is on the semester system and UCLA is on the quarter system. 

OK, Cole will say, rightfully, that California is so much bigger it shouldn't be the comparison.  So I looked at other states in the West.

Wyoming just has one main campus.

Nevada Reno and Las Vegas each have different calendars.

The University of Arizona has a different calendar from Northern Arizona University and both are different from Arizona State.

Washington State is on semesters and so its calendar is very different from the University of Washington's which is on quarters.  Evergreen is also on quarters, but has its own calendar.

Boise State, Idaho State, and the University of Idaho each has its own calendar.

Montana State University at Bozeman's  calendar is different from MSU at Billings'.  And the University of Montana (Helena) has its own calendar.

Utah State University campuses seem to have the same calendar, but they're different from the University of Utah and Southern Utah University.  They're all fairly close, but not exactly the same.

At the University of Colorado at Denver, I found different colleges (Dental, Pharmacy, and Nursing calendars all popped up first on google and were all different) within the Denver campus that had different calendars.  So it wasn't a surprise that the Boulder campus calendar was different.

The only western state where all the public universities had the same calendar was Oregon.
And they have a very small statewide coordinating organization that might actually be a good model for Alaska.

I get that for many the idea of tight coordination across campuses seems like a really good idea.  But why don't all the western state universities have it?   I suspect because the effort to coordinate isn't worth the benefits.  It seems to me to distract from more important issues - like the budget imbalances between UAA and UAF and the  statewide administration whose budget is the same as the Juneau campus!  If we want to look at Oregon - where all the campuses have the same calendar - let's look at their statewide administration.

So I looked for more information.  Here's what I found:

Screenshot from here
 So, there's no central administration any more - you should contact the individual campus 'fiefdoms.'

And what is HECC?
The HECC is a 14-member public commission, supported by the HECC agency. The agency includes the Offices of:  Executive Director, Policy & Communication; Student Access & Completion; Community Colleges & Workforce Development; Operations; Private Postsecondary Education; University Coordination; and Research & Data. For more information, see About Us.

But before we jump on the Oregon bandwagon, I'd note that the Oregon legislature pays a much smaller percentage of the total budget of their state universities than does Alaska and many states.

I'm not saying that coordinated calendars would be a bad thing.  I'm just surprised at the focus on something that seems to me to play a relatively insignificant role in our statewide system.  And it distracts from the really important issues.   If UAA is not rated as highly as other universities, as pointed out by former regent Kirk Wickersham last week, a large part of that is due to the fact that the university takes seriously its role to serve all of Alaska's potential students, including many who are not prepared for higher education.  This is not to blame the students, but to say that for many reasons our K-12 is unable to prepare all their students for college level education.  Perhaps we need a bridge institution between university and K-12.  (The regents got rid of the community college system as a budget saving move in 1987.)  Or we need a better way to provide K-12 education.  Or our whole society has to rethink the idea that everyone needs to go to college and figure out much better post K-12 vocational training for those who don't want college or don't have an aptitude for it, but feel that's what they have to do.  I wrote about these issues too in the link I gave above.

My experience at UAA was that there were a lot of first class faculty and many much smaller classes than you get at Outside state universities.  A student who picked her classes well could get an incredible education at UAA for a bargain price.  But the quality of her fellow students would not be what it would be at an Ivy League school or at the best public universities where admission standards are much more rigorous.  That UAA takes its job to serve all Alaskans seriously, is a good thing.  Though we aren't doing as good a job as we should be.

Compared to these issues, coordinating calendars is trivial.  A distraction. And, if the UA system did become "one central campus existing in multiple places" (unlike Oregon with the unified calendar) where would that one central campus be?  If you think agreeing to a unified calendar is hard, wait until we have the fight over the location of the central campus.  It's a solution, but not to the real problems we face.

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