New UAA chancellor sees university as benefitting many

Eight months into her job as University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor, Cathy Sandeen has survived not just her first winter in Alaska, but crises that might have sent other cheechakos screaming back to the Lower 49 states.

Sandeen started out 2019 not just with the loss of accreditation for the UAA School of Education, but with a proposed budget from Gov. Mike Dunleavy that included a Procrustean cut of $134 million or 40% of the state’s contribution to the University of Alaska funding.

“I didn’t expect as extreme a cut as in the governor’s original proposal,” Sandeen said in an interview with the Homer News. “I think the community understood the ramifications and stood behind the university.”

Last weekend, Sandeen took a working vacation to attend the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, held June 14-18 at Land’s End Resort. During her first trip to Homer and the Kachemak Bay Campus in her official role as the leader of UAA, Sandeen opened the conference at last Friday’s address by keynote speaker Diane Ackerman and welcomed the visiting faculty and attendees. Sandeen made a careful note to honor the Dena’ina people who lived on the north shore of Kachemak Bay before European contact.

Born in Oakland, California, and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Sandeen spent 20 years working in administration with the University of California system at UC San Francisco, UC Santa Cruz and UC Los Angeles.

Sandeen took a two-year break from academia as vice president of innovation and education at the American Council of Education in Washington, D.C. Before coming to Alaska, she was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and UW-Extension, working out of the Madison, Wisconsin campus. There she had a similar job as that of UAA Chancellor, working with branch campuses and connecting the research and resources of the university with rural areas.

The Wisconsin university system is centered around what’s called the Wisconsin Idea, where the boundaries of the university are those of the state, and the public is invested in the university.

“Everybody deserves to get the benefit of the university,” Sandeen said. “… I think it applies to Alaska, too.”

The Kachemak Bay Writers Conference is a good example of that, she said. The beauty of Kachemak Bay and the reputation of the conference allow it to attract world-class writers. The conference also includes a public talk and reading by the keynote speaker and the annual Festival of Reading.

“It’s open to the whole community,” Sandeen said of the conference. “It’s the back and forth, relaxed attitudes — it’s what the university should be.”

As an example of how the community supports the university in return, Sandeen noted the $800,000 contribution in property taxes for the Kenai Peninsula College Service Area that also supports the Kachemak Bay Campus.

“Here in Alaska we don’t see it in all community campuses,” Sandeen said. “It so happens KPC (Kenai Peninsula College) latched on to that idea. I think it’s a smart investment.”

Before she came to Alaska, Sandeen had been exploring the idea of a nonfiction book on the college-bound decisions of rural youth in Wisconsin. That same issue could apply to Alaskans. She wants to look into the family, social and cultural dynamics of rural youth seeking a post-secondary education. Do they seek a four-year college degree? Do they get a vocational-technical degree? Rural youth also face the prospect of, “I love my small town. I respect the people there, but if I got to college, I might not go back,” Sandeen said.

“I really respect people in rural areas,” she said. “I’m not one to say everybody has to go to college.”

Sandeen stressed that education after high school doesn’t necessarily mean college.

“It’s all important. It all counts,” she said. “I am proud that UAA is a place — It’s unusual to have an institution that does everything from certificates to PhDs.”

In terms of programs in the UAA system, that means keeping options flexible.

“How do we create pathways?” she asked. “Someone gets a certificate, that’s academic credit. There’s an on-ramp to go to the next step.”

Despite economic uncertainty, applications for the fall semester are up at the UAA campuses, Sandeen said. They’re attracting students with grade-point averages of 3.5 and higher.

“These are students who can go anywhere but are choosing to stay,” she said.

The Legislature passed a university budget less drastic than the governor’s. It’s a split appropriation, with part going to the statewide office and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses and the rest to the University of Alaska Southeast and the community campuses. That’s not a mandate for the university to restructure, but it’s an avenue the UA Board of Regents is looking at through a task force, Sandeen said.

“Everybody is really struggling with what’s the best structure,” she said.

The university also is sensitive about not placing too high a financial burden on students through steep tuition and fee increases.

“Our goal is to keep tuition affordable to students,” she said, noting that other states have increased tuition. “…I’m proud that in Alaska we definitely keep affordability at the forefront.”

Another innovation is to make general education requirements uniform across the campuses. That system allows students to start their academic career at their local campuses and then take upper-division courses on campus at UAA, UAF or UAS or through distance education. The university would like to apply portability of credits to some bachelor’s degrees, too.

Distance and online education provided Anchorage and UAA education majors a lifeline after the UAA School of Education lost its accreditation. Education students can transfer to UAF or UAS, but also take online courses. They also can do student teaching in their communities.

University officials don’t know yet how or if Dunleavy will cut the Legislature’s budget. Dunleavy can make line-item vetoes of appropriations.

“It’s a critical time. I want to get us to that nice, sustainable level, garnering the recognition we deserve,” she said. “You see what a university brings. It brings the talent. It brings the discoveries. It brings out possibilities for different industries.”

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