Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Build it and they shall come....

As anyone who has happened to wander onto UAF campus this summer can attest, the campus is a construction war zone. It is as if the powers-that-be are channeling the Big Dig.  First, there is the hole (which used to be a parking lot) that is slated to be the new engineering building – though the word on the street is that the U has only secured about ½ of the funds to build the thing.  But hey, if there is a  better way to get the Lege to unknot their purse strings than to start a building without all of the money in place to finish and furnish it, I sure can’t think of it.    

Snaking away from the hole-to-be-building is the Tanana Loop utilidor project; at least that is what this blogger thinks it is.  All that is really known is that it involves a lot of men standing around wearing blue hardhats watching men wearing white hardhats move dirt using very large machines.  This project effectively cuts off one of the scarce student parking lots  from the rest of campus, but this really doesn’t matter, since it appears the parking lot is going to be used indefinitely as a place to dump dirt from the Big Dig.  

On upper campus, there is the construction of an addition to Wood Center – which is also just a hole in the ground, even though school is scheduled to start in about a month, with our two weeks of fall and the long arctic winter not far behind.  West Ridge has some random construction fencing thrown up and men moving dirt around – and, inexplicably, all of the parking around Butrovitch shut down.

If it seems that I keep highlighting parking lots and the loss thereof – it is because UAF campus is notorious for really, really, really shitty parking, unless you happen to be an administrator who a) earns enough to pay the $800+ yearly fee for a Gold Sticker and b) is lucky enough to get on the list for a Gold lot reasonably close to where one works.  Already students and most faculty are parking in lots that might as well be on the dark side of the moon. This is especially true when it is 45 below, and one has to dress in full moon gear just to avoid freezing to death walking to class.

So, having just taken a walking tour of the campus construction hot spots, it was with bemusement that I read today the Chancellor’s memo about the challenging budget year ahead for the University in AY14. It appears there is an $8.5 million shortfall. Which, you guessed it right, gentle reader, will have to be made up by faculty and staff tightening their belts (and praying like hell that the non-retention notices and pink slips aren’t going to start flying). 

Specifically the memo reads: “This year, we decided to forgo an across-the-board pullback in favor of asking units to identify specific budget management actions to address the shortfall. In all cases, departments and programs are being asked to… look for ways to save money.”  Among the usual administrative ploys of not filling empty positions, and putting a 90-day hiring freeze in effect, the University has axed the Office of Career Services.


Maybe I don’t get the whole budget thing when it comes to an institution like the University, but it seems to me that if there is a shortfall, one doesn’t start poking holes everywhere preparatory to building big, expensive buildings (the need-more-space argument sort of loses its punch when there is a hiring freeze,  empty positions aren't being filled and programs are vanishing). Also, it is not clear to this blogger how new buildings are really going to address the U's ongoing decline in enrollment and other student-related problems, such as graduation rates.  

According to published sources, UAF's graduation rate hovers around 25%. In contrast, the institution I attended (and graduated) has a graduation rate of 96%. It is also an institution that has in addition to high-quality academic programs deep support services for students – including but not limited to sufficient course offerings to enable a student to graduate in four years (a perennial problem at UAF), and, wait for it, a plethora of college and career counseling services. 

Now it could be that I am totally missing the boat on this one, but it seems to me that on a  campus with a graduation rate that is frankly in the toilet, and where there are a   lot of non-traditional students, including many students from  remote rural Alaska,  career counseling might be a tad bit important. 

But not, apparently, as important as legacy items such as nice, shiny, glassy, sparkly new buildings - even if these buildings will gradually empty as the budgets shrink even further, faculty and programs are reduced, and the UA Administration continues its questionable lemming march towards the e-learning/MOOC cliff.

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