Dear UAF community,

In my March Friday Focus I talked about looking forward, thinking differently about what we want to look like at the end of the current crisis. Of course that thinking suggests that the current COVID crisis or for that matter, that the budget crisis will one day be declared over when in fact neither has an end date when things will return to “normal.” Even if it did, I don’t think we want normal. We want to be way ahead of normal!

I have also been reflecting on the innovative work of our faculty and staff who stepped up during this difficult time with pioneering ideas, and new approaches. The Expedited Administrative Review Committee’s report asked for new approaches to old structures. I heard at a Faculty Senate meeting that “we need a beacon.”

I agree, let’s discuss the beacons that are out there for UAF. Let’s start talking about how we innovate now to get us where we want to be as the current health crisis flows and ebbs and maybe flows again, and as the budget crisis twists and turns with the price of oil and politics. This last year has certainly taught me one thing and that is that our future is less about how we endure the dramatic swings in our new “normal” and more about how we take advantage of them. I think about Wall Street. Fortunes are made in the big market swings and sharp turns — up and down — whether the market overall is trending upward or downward. Placer miners call it “mining the corners” — finding the sharp corners in the ancient river beds where the gold dropped out of the rushing river.

We are in the midst of the sharpest turn that higher education has ever seen. Universities across the world have “temporarily” gone to distance delivery. This changes everything. Traditional students across the world are now looking online in ways like never before. We have never had access to national and international markets of traditional students like we do now. UAF stands to benefit in this new paradigm. Why? Because UAF has developed a nimble eCampus that is creative, and market oriented. And UAF faculty and staff made more than 73 whole programs available by distance before the COVID-19 virus made the leap to humans. The demand will not be met by Arizona State University on-line and Western Governors University because they were designed to attract largely non-traditional students. The new market is traditional students who were bumped on-line. This market disruption will help ASU and WGU for sure but it stands to help us more. Traditional students now looking for something different plays to UAF’s advantage. It will also help us because it provides us the opportunity to grow our research enterprise and grow enrollment. Most research Universities are not as prepared as we are for this new market segment. The window will be short, but it is open.

As we think about the future and how we take advantage of a new educational landscape, what are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? How best do we engage the great minds across UAF into this future planning and how do we act quickly. The paths we could take are many and the short time available to respond plays to our advantage for now. Let’s leverage that in the new normal. We are already putting in the cycles on enrollment strategy and the Nanook Pledge program is bending the curve. Enrollment is our key for financial stability and research has a critical role to play.

I have met with UAF’s core leadership group — the Provost, Vice Chancellors, Executive Officer, and University Relations director —to brainstorm about the “what” and the “how”. We all know that the great ideas are already on our campus and I know that you all have been thinking the same way that we have. During this time when people are looking up and out, let’s act now to grab their attention and energy to the special things about UAF, those things where we have a corner on the market.

Here are some general thoughts to get things started:
  1. Could we design a summer intensives program to enroll large numbers of students from existing Universities and connect them to UAF’s research enterprise? Could UAF use intensives to lead the way in modular programming toward degree attainment at UAF and elsewhere?
  2. What if we were the first preschool to Ph.D. University? We already realize the need to expand and extend Bunnell House. We are also moving our middle college from high school seniors to include high school juniors. What if we worked together with our school district partners to include other grades as well? The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District and UAF have a solid partnership that is built for success.
  3. What if we significantly reduced our “traditional” facilities footprint and designed our new facilities (residence halls), renovations or improvements around diversity and experiential learning?
  4. We don’t want to be simply an on-line University, but what if some of our Colleges did not go back to traditional face to face classes?
  5. What if our Honors College, already focused on climate change, hosted a summer intensive that became standard in curricula across the country?
  6. Could we be the destination for every Indigenous student in America? Whether students seek degrees at UAF or modular short courses or summer intensives, let’s engage everyone.
  7. UAF should make ourselves and our programming the destination for students wanting diversity, inclusion and caring. We can transform our living learning communities and focus on community wellness to make this happen. Whether the community is on-line or in person, wellness transcends boundaries.
What are the hows?
  1. How do we scale ideas up? In all innovative development, the challenge is usually not coming up with the idea, it is how to scale it up.
  2. What does expanded modular programming look like and how do we remove barriers?
  3. How do we make changes to our traditional schedules and processes, such as fee structures, tuition rates and class size limits? Could we expand our current use of modular classes (3 or 4 week full time classes), multiple start times, multiple formats? Our important workforce development programs already use these types of formats. How about others?
I will ask our strategic planning groups to begin this initial conversation and to tie in other groups across campus. I ask you to think about these things as we refocus on that beacon. There is opportunity in disruption, and now is the time. We are committed to thrive in the face of adversity! Think big, UAF!

— Dan White

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