Applying Land-Grant Themes to Decision-Making Models: The Alaskan Test Case

Reacting to huge funding cuts from state government, Alaska’s Board of Regents recently voted to declare financial exigency. In the wake of these actions, the president of the Alaska system (Jim Johnsen) has proffered three “structuring models” to governing board members that are meant to guide their decision-making as budget reductions are considered.

The first model would eliminate one or two of the Alaskan system’s three campuses, largely saving the remaining campuses from any cuts at all. The second model might best be called the “peanut butter option,” where cuts are spread evenly across the three campuses. The third model would be to completely redesign the higher education system in order to integrate programs across the campuses, create a common statewide curriculum, and reduce duplication of programs.

Each of these models have pros and cons, of course, as has been recounted in a recent Inside Higher Education article. Left unaddressed in coverage to date, however, is how decision-making processes can and should be influenced by the land-grant mission.

In our 2018 Land-Grant Universities for the Future book, West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee and I presented readers with seven themes that were derived from interviews we conducted with 27 land-grant presidents and chancellors. We believed these themes captured the essence of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to the land-grant mission of the 21st century. In no necessary order of importance, the themes were discussed as follows:

  1. Concerns about funding declines versus the need to create efficiencies
  2. Research prowess versus teaching and service excellence
  3. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake versus a more applied focus
  4. The focus on rankings versus an emphasis on access and affordability
  5. Meeting the needs of rural communities versus the needs of a more urbanized America
  6. Global reach versus closer to home impact
  7. The benefits of higher education versus the devaluation of a college diploma

How might some or all these themes be applied by Alaska’s governing board members and members of the Alaskan higher education community as they grapple with funding decisions? The first theme is clearly reflected in the models presented by Jim Johnsen and involves the need to balance possible cuts across the board against questions of productivity and competency. Application of the next five themes likely will demand a coherent understanding of how funding decisions would affect the relative balance of teaching, research, and community engagement (the tripartite mission of the land-grant university).

At this point in time, coverage of the situation in Alaska has provided scant information about many of these issues. Perhaps most important in terms of addressing land-grant mission specific aspects is the potential impact all of this has on Cooperative Extension Services. After all, the defining difference between a land-grant university and all other public (and private) institutions of higher learning is Cooperative Extension. How are the lawmakers and university decision-makers thinking about the main connection between the communities of Alaska and their land-grant institution?

Regrettably, the last theme discussed in the Land-Grant Universities for the Future book seems to be emblematic of the Alaskan higher education system and its present predicament. The governor and state lawmakers in Alaska clearly see greater returns on investment coming from their decisions to place funding outside of higher education. How did it come to this? Is it really just the case of the Alaskan governor no longer wanting his universities to be “all things to all people” as reported in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article?

And did he simply wake up one day and decide this? Or instead did university leaders fail to respond to warning signs that their relationships with state lawmakers were less than ideal? And were they perhaps negligent in their duty to “talk the talk” and “walk the walk” of their land-grant mission? Perhaps more important than an exercise in finger-pointing in Alaska, however, is the need for higher education leaders in the other 49 states to take stock of their own relationships with lawmakers and their own articulation of how their universities are carrying out the land-grant mission of the 21st century.

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