UA embarks on improvement plan before centennial

Jonathan Grass/AJOC

The University of Alaska’s 100-year anniversary is coming up soon. As part of an effort to maximize what the students are getting before the centennial, UA is implementing an initiative called Shaping Alaska’s Future 2017.

A major part of this is the Strategic Direction Initiative, or SDI, which is now entering its next phase of development.

The SDI takes input from inside and outside the university about what direction the university needs to take. A series of listening sessions were conducted for about a year. The idea is to identify and resolve problems in the system while developing ways to be responsive to state needs. SDI is also a way to ensure accountability through measurable feedback.

The collected input will be used to develop strategies for the university to become more aligned with needs of its students, faculty and the state. Strategies developed will be unique to different campuses as opposed to a blanket approach.

UA President Patrick Gamble said SDI started out as a way to update the university’s strategic plan but quickly evolved into a separate initiative. Gamble described the difference by saying a strategic plan is guide on what to do, and that UA operations were already pretty standard, while SDI is more of a way to figure out how to do things better. He said it’s a change of direction rather than a complete redo of the university’s function.

“So we went from a what to a how,” he said.

SDI addresses many national and local student issues, such as getting more students into college while keeping it affordable. These ideas mean everything from credit transferability to student advising.

Still, this directive of helping students get what they need goes beyond classes and gets into workforce development in things like mining, heavy equipment mechanics and other fields.

“What we’re aiming at goes across the entire spectrum of what the university delivers,” Gamble said.

Gamble said there are currently 143 measures before legislatures in 35 states that deal with directing where higher education is going. He said Alaska doesn’t want to be one of those states where the legislature intervenes. He said the SDI will help show the university is accountable and recognizes the need for change on its own.

SDI development

The SDI process began with 80 listening sessions across the state. Staff gathered input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, professional groups and business communities about the university’s performance. Additionally, a consulting team reported on areas to look at.

“We gathered information from just about everywhere we could find it,” Gamble said.

The data from these sessions, combined with internal knowledge of issues to address, made for a large amount of data to go through. The data was then organized into themes. This process took roughly a year.

The five themes that resulted are: student achievement and attainment, productive partnerships with Alaska’s schools, productive partnerships with Alaska’s public and private industries, research and development to help build and sustain Alaska’s economic growth, and accountability to the people of Alaska.

These themes may still evolve, depending on new information and solutions.

Gamble said issues that he kept hearing about were as graduation rates, retention, remedial education for students coming out of high school, and nontraditional students.

Gamble said there are many areas such as these that the university is trying to improve upon while holding down costs and maintaining value and educational quality.

“It just occurred to me that many of these issues were things that could be worked and worked for the better,” he said.

He said it made a lot of sense to evaluate if a university-wide effort would be the best approach to many of these issues rather than tackling them individually. He said this seemed like a good way to improve the continuum.

Gamble said being all about student needs was a cornerstone of these listening sessions.

“What we want to do is get better at the business of service and be less bureaucratic in the process,” he said.

The next part will involve the faculties, deans and chancellors’ teams taking all of this categorized information and look at breaking out specific issues and problems to help differentiate fundamental problems from just the symptoms. This will commence as the summer ends and more faculty members are available.

The final part will be the development and implementation of solutions.

Gamble said an exact timeline for each phase is difficult because there’s no precedent for SDI. He described SDI it as a “design-build” process in which it’s developed step-by-step as it goes along.

He said that once solutions to problems are identified, there may be several ways to get to such solutions. He said many people then get involved to decide the right path forward from the student’s perspective. This means it must be affordable and cannot take very long, which can eliminate several paths.


Each campus has its own needs and conducted its own listening sessions.

“What we’re doing right now here at (University of Alaska Southeast) is we immediately began to look at the stuff we got from our listening sessions and some of the things we got we could immediately start work to fix them, said UAS Chancellor John Pugh.

He gave an example of being able to immediately fix efficiency in responses in student services.

Pugh said students not finishing college as fast as they should is both a local and a national issue that’s come up. UAS has developed a program called Stay On Track that encourages students to take 15 or more credits per semester to finish in a reasonable amount of time. The other part is incentivizing students by offering $500 tuition waivers if they take the 15 or more credit hours.

Pugh said this has been very successful and that about 40 percent of students who were taking more than 12 credits but les than 15 have decided to take the extra credit hours.

Pugh said the McDowell Group just did a study of present UAS students plus those who had dropped out or transferred to help determine issues.

“They want better pathways helping them to get finished. They want better advising to help them get finished,” said Pugh.

Pugh said the whole university has also jumped heavily into remedial education, which is where improving student achievement before college comes in.

The listening sessions identified several workforce programs that will come into play at UAS as well as the other campuses. These include fisheries education. The university has a fisheries technology program in Ketchikan and trains people to work in the hatcheries.

UAS is also working with companies like Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp. and Hecla Mining Co. to help train students at the mines. Pugh said Hecla gave $300,000 to help prepare the program and start a high school program, which started last year.

“When we say partner with the industries, you can see we can really respond to the workforce needs of Alaska,” he said.

Pugh said the schools will try to line up budget requests with what develops in phase two of SDI. Part of these requests will be for advising and a general funded director of the mine training center in Juneau.

Pugh said the university UAS had just done a strategic plan, which is required for accreditation. He said they came up with similar themes to the resulting SDI ones.

“It’s got a lot of similarities and I think it will, in a sense, re-energize people to keep working on it,” he said.

University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Tom Case said UAA is also participating in fisheries and mining. Other areas UAA is focusing on is partnerships in bringing K-12 students to the campus as often as possible and to interact with high schools.

“That learning continuum really needs to start very early,” Case said.

UAA has also increased its number of advisors and put a focus on training and educational opportunities. Case said advising comes in two parts. One is in the student services area, which involves financial aid, processing, initial advising and counseling. The other part is the academic programs.

Case concurred with Gamble in getting students to graduate as quickly as they can. He said that “on time” graduation varies with each student and depends on their other responsibilities and locations.

“What we aim to do is work with each of them to the best we possibly can to make a plan that works for them and then remove all the roadblocks we possibly can to allow them to graduate in the time that’s right for them,” he said.

Case said UAA’s new engineering building also ties into SDI because engineering is a high priority for the state. UAA and UAF are both building new engineering buildings. UAS also plays a big role through pre-engineering courses.

Case said UAA has a statewide lead in health care education and therefore opened a brand new college of health last year. He said they are now working on medical training and education for physicians, physician assistants and nurses.

Case said that the way students are learning has changed, and this is something that will be addressed with SDI. He said traditional methods must make way for new technologies and distance-learning options.

11/10/2016 - 2:31pm