Friday Focus: Making the most of what we have

Chancellor Dan White
UAF photo by Eric Engman
Chancellor Dan White

March 29, 2024

— By Dan White, chancellor

Alaska is described as a “resource state.” We are a state rich in natural resources. Rich in awe-inspiring landscapes, abundant freshwater resources and wildlife that thrive in an environment with the wildest seasonal swings on earth. Above and below ground are natural resources valuable to society and infrastructure. Oil, gas, minerals, timber and fish. These resources provide not only the building blocks of human habitation but jobs. Jobs that support our way of life. In this resource state, the greatest resource is our people. And at UAF, it is our responsibility to steward the most valuable resource; the class of students that graduates each year from this great institution.

With that said, we have not always had access to the financial resources to do all of the things we can, want or should do, depending on your perspective. Things have not always been easy. We endured serious budget cuts in 2019 that had huge impacts on our community. During that time, we didn’t have a lot, but we made the most of what we did. Then, in 2020, we all collectively experienced the COVID-19 pandemic. This was another difficult time for our community, but we pivoted time and again to ensure that to the best of our ability students were taught, transformative experiences were had, and researchers made discoveries. Faculty moved their classes online and staff held campus-wide Zoom events. It was not easy, but we did it. Thank you to everyone who supported the university and looked out for others during these challenging times.

In 2024, what we have is a lot different than what we had in 2015 or 2020.  Things aren’t perfect, but we have built a strong foundation that we will continue to grow from. In this time of relative stability, we need to capitalize on this opportunity and make the most of the resources we have. 

For example, right now we have stable enrollment numbers. This is notable when at most universities around the country, enrollment is declining. At the most recent Chancellor’s Forum on Enrollment, I shared some concerning data about the upcoming enrollment cliff that colleges and universities across the country will face in just a few years. Due to a mix of declining population and a changing economy, there will be considerably fewer college-going students in the coming years. The market will become more competitive and some universities won’t survive. The universities that find success will be the ones that differentiate themselves. The mega-universities will push forward, the elite academic institutions will be stable, and so will the top research universities and the destination universities. They will be fine. We will be fine. That is, we have the capacity to be fine. But just like during the budget crisis and COVID, we need to assess, adapt, rethink, retool and reimagine along the way. No one will be fine doing nothing.

Right now, while things are stable, we are making changes that will set us up for future success. We know that what sets us apart from other institutes of higher education is our transformative experiences. Nowhere else in the country can offer what we can at UAF, from operating the only polar class-5 ship in the U.S. research fleet, having campuses in locations from Juneau to Bethel to Toolik Lake, to building our very own ice climbing wall on campus. We have the tools. Just like our athletics teams look every week to step up their game, our enrollment teams, advising teams, research teams and administrative teams look to step up their game. Now is the time to build on our strong foundation, invest in modern dorms, expand the UAF “Main Street,” build the Troth Yeddha’ Indigenous Studies Center, and become an R1 university. If we make the most of what we have, when we have it, we will make ourselves more resilient to what comes our way.

We are in a position to take UAF to the next level, and we need to make the most of it. The opportunity cost of doing nothing is much larger than the risk of going for it. It will take many perspectives to chart our path there, but at the end of the day, we set our sights on making the most of the resources we have. At UAF, we know that when change comes, we embrace it, and use all of the resources at our disposal to produce the greatest resource in Alaska, a newly minted graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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