Friday Focus: UAF's education futures

April 24, 2020

Tori Tragis

Dan White. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.
Dan White. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

— by Dan White, chancellor

The following was printed in The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2020: “U.S. oil futures plunged below zero for the first time ever April 20, a chaotic demonstration of the dwindling capacity to store all the crude the world’s stalled economy doesn’t need. A barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude to be delivered in May, which closed at $18.27 on April 17, ended April 20 at negative $37.63.”

What the heck does that mean? What it means is that oil futures are worth less than zero dollars. Oil to be delivered in May costs money to get rid of. It is of course not going to be the case that oil companies will pay you and me $37 for every barrel of oil we accept or that when I fill up my truck with gas I will walk away with 20 bucks more in my pocket.

What does it mean that a commodity has a negative value and what does it mean for Alaska? What it means to me is that it is so important for UAF, the state’s flagship university, to be less tethered to a commodity that ranged in value between $75 and $-37 over the course of a year. That is unfortunately where we are at the moment, caught in the wild swings of a cyclic commodity (and a pandemic).

We are also a futures market, creating positive futures for Alaskans. The world is relying on our cutting-edge research to create positive futures for humanity. Postsecondary education provided to Alaskans “trades” only in positive territory, and our business is one that is as critical to Alaskans today as it was 100 years ago and as it will be next year and the next.

How do we untether from the price of oil? We do it through the value of our commodity — the delivered product — of a postsecondary education and a research product that is in demand. Primary revenues for UAF are tuition and research contracts. Tuition grows by offering a great product at an affordable price. At this moment, the UAF Tuition and Fee Committee is looking at options for differentiating tuition across UAF and possible models for the system to consider where CTC and rural campus tuition and tuition at the research university (Troth Yeddha) are different. Proposals we produce will be considered by the system President and Board for differing tuition rates at UAF and our sister universities. And while still on the drawing board, perhaps UAF’s Troth Yeddha tuition goes up some but we are also able to apply more scholarships and financial aid to offset these increases for those in need. Starting to look at a model where we are closer in tuition to our research university peers and our community college peers only makes sense. These are just some conversations that are ongoing and if proposed by UAF and approved by the President would be considered by the board.

Tuition revenue also goes up when enrollment goes up. This is where UAF has room to grow and where many of our globally important programs have opportunity. This opportunity for growth will likely be afforded through our innovative and enterprising eCampus. But it isn’t just them, it's everyone. We are all in the enrollment business.

I also thought about how we talk about the positive futures of UAF’s education in the synergies and partnerships that we can grow across our campus and across our system. Chancellors Sandeen, Caulfield and I met earlier this week and will meet again next week to talk about the many opportunities there are for collaboration. Although chancellors can help facilitate and enable collaboration, it will be the great ideas of faculty and staff, deans and directors, who know where the big opportunities are. Let us reduce barriers. As you think about ways to collaborate and save money, know that I will be there to support this and will work with the other chancellors to make collaboration successful. As I wrote in an earlier column, when it appeared that UAA and UAF were pitted against each other, I support UAA. I support UAA because I love UAF. We won’t be successful if UAA struggles. The opposite is true as well so let's figure this out together. We have a lot of budget to cut and a lot at stake. But we also drive the positive futures market for Alaskans.

The last thing I thought about when I thought about positive futures is the IDEA Task Force that I formed soon after starting as Chancellor. Many thanks to each of you who served on this important task force. This group of diverse individuals put a lot of work into recommendations that I think will do great things towards creating positive futures for us as a University. Some of those are as follows:

New initiatives suggested:

  • Require training on inclusivity, diversity, equity and accessibility

  • Create multiple centers (or a single integrated center with multiple dedicated staff) for underrepresented students, e.g. LGBTQ+ Center, Women’s Center, Multicultural Center, International Center, First-Gen Center

  • Appoint a permanent Chancellor’s Council on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility; involve governance organizations in selecting representatives

  • Create a workforce diversity plan to increase the diversity of employees at UAF; consider modeling after Kandee Cleary’s Workforce Development Plan (PDF)

  • Ensure that all lab spaces are fully ADA compliant

Here in the next month I plan to appoint a Chief Diversity Officer for UAF and that person will form and chair a Chancellor’s Council on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility. I will look to this committee to work across campus to provide the improvements we need so that as we talk about Alaska’s futures, we are not talking about a positive future for some. We are talking about a positive future for all. Perhaps that is the most important point. Join us next week (April 30) for the diversity forum.

UAF’s financial structure should be designed around our delivered commodities — education, research, and outreach. We can build a financial structure that allows for this and reduces our dependency on state revenue and oil prices. It is a financial structure that will take some time to develop, but I think through enrollment, tuition, scholarships, and our fabulous research enterprise, we can do it. And when I say we, I mean everyone. Congratulations to our lavender cord and first-generation graduates, military veterans, active duty and dependents, and everyone else from every culture and walk of life who will graduate in one month. You are why UAF’s education futures market continues to grow.

Thanks for choosing UAF.

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week.