Focus on the future: Distinction at UAF

Dan White smiling in a blue suit
Chancellor Dan White

Feb. 25, 2022

— By Dan White, chancellor

The following is a modified version of my Chancellor’s “7-minute” report to the Board of Regents yesterday.

Let me start by saying that at UAF we acknowledge the Alaska Native nations upon whose ancestral lands our campuses reside. In Fairbanks, where I am, our Troth Yeddha' Campus is located on the ancestral lands of the Dena people of the lower Tanana River.

And if you drive on campus, our signage says so. It says “Welcome to Troth Yeddha’.” And here, in this place and as we look forward, we see clearly that this is a critical time.

We are seeing a realignment across the country in universities, as student expectations change. Students are evermore separating into those seeking certification and those seeking transformative experiences. It is not new, but the divisions are greater, accelerated by the decadal shift in the cost of education from the state to the student. The consequences of not understanding and responding to these changes are high. We have positioned UAF to join the research universities that will emerge stronger from the national realignment by focusing on the transformative experience, online and in person. UAF has always focused on innovation and experiential education but it is now how we distinguish ourselves in the tightening national market. 

Our proposed vision is excellence through transformative experiences. While we are still receiving some comments on this vision, the elements are there. This vision is supported by our strategic plan, built on six goals:

  1. Modernize the student experience
  2. Solidify our position as global leaders in Alaska Native and Indigenous programs
  3. Achieve tier 1 research status
  4. Transform UAF’s intellectual property development and commercialization
  5. Embrace and grow a culture of respect, diversity, inclusion and caring
  6. Revitalize key academic programs

Our strategic goals that support this vision are not new. They preceded the budget cut and COVID. But through that time, they informed decision-making. A good example is strategic enrollment planning, part and parcel to our strategic goal of modernizing our student experience. In spite of our budget austerity, we reallocated $1 million per year, each of the last 3 years into strategic enrollment initiatives. Now, three years into the process it is paying dividends with increased enrollment in areas recharging academic budgets.

Our strategic goals are linked. Our goal of being global leaders in Alaska Native and Indigenous studies is linked with our other goals of reaching Tier 1 research status, growing our culture of respect, diversity inclusion and caring, of modernizing the student experience and revitalizing key academic programs. These goals drive actions and priorities and are the reason that the Troth Yeddha’ Indigenous studies center remains our top capital fundraising priority.

Our strategic goals are consistent with our Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities Accreditation and UA system-level goals and measures. Many measures and metrics are about reaching numbers. Our vision and strategic goals are about who we will be and how we will get there. It is more than achieving numbers, it is winning hearts and minds. To this end we start with the value proposition.

UAF enrollment strategies are driven by the value proposition for students and with that, strategic financial aid packaging. Our new financial aid strategies have decreased UAF student debt even while UAF’s price went up. This decrease in student debt comes atop of some of the lowest student debt in the nation. This is a product of deliberate financial aid packaging, corporate benefits programming, military pricing, and high school dual enrollment strategies that each, in different ways, leverage the value proposition to benefit students.

As of last week, UAF had 23,000 EdX learners, on track to our goal of 100,000 learners by the close of 2024. Currently 35% of all EdX enrollments are in our non-credit GIS Certificate Program. These certificates of value are part of our micro-credentialing strategy, and they generate revenue for UAF. What’s more, thousands of students who started in our free, online program will secure jobs with certificates earned on UAF’s EdX platform. The stories they tell and the success they attribute to their UAF education is part of our value proposition.

The College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences is in the final stages of developing its first fully asynchronous online undergraduate degree program for the BS in fisheries and marine sciences. Fully online and asynchronous. This means the first “anytime, anywhere” bachelors of science degree, part of our value proposition.

My thanks to VC Owen Guthrie, Admissions Director Anna Gagne-Hawes, deans, directors, staff and faculty for their constant innovation and focus on the value proposition.

Distinction is part of our value proposition in the national market. And in particular, distinction in our research enterprise that, throughout the pandemic and the budget cuts, grew in its importance to the nation, global recognition, and net dollar value added to the state. 

Research on Alaskan dinosaurs by museum paleontologists, including Director Pat Druckenmiller and his graduate students, was the focus of a recent full episode of the PBS science documentary NOVA. The episode “Alaskan Dinosaurs” aired nationally on Jan. 19 and is also available on the PBS website. A one-hour version produced by National Geographic titled “Hunting Alaskan Dinosaurs” is also airing internationally. The very next week NOVA ran a documentary called “Arctic Sinkholes,” featuring UAF researchers including Dr. Katey Walter Anthony’s work on thawing permafrost. That is one NOVA short of a hat trick.

Speaking of a hat trick, More than 40 alumni and family members gathered in Arizona this month to attend an Alaska Nanooks hockey game and after-party.

The showing of our blue and gold-wearing alumni in the sold-out arena surely helped the Alaska Nanooks complete their first-ever sweep of the Arizona State Sun Devils at Oceanside Ice Arena on the campus of Arizona State University. 

I encourage you to join the 2022 Festival of Native Arts, which will be held virtually on March 25th and 26th. For 49 years, this student-run festival has made this place, UAF, a beacon of hope, of celebration, of belonging, for Alaska Native, Indigenous and non-indigenous people.

 Back to where we started, with hearts and minds. On Valentine’s Day we launched the “show your love campaign.” What’s your UAF love story? Support for UAF through storytelling. Stories and images were inspiring and are being posted and shared online (web and social). 

It is the transformative experience at UAF that develops, changes, and nurtures hearts and minds. That’s what we do and as the national market shifts, UAF’s value proposition is growing!

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