Sheldon Jackson's doors to stay open

Historic Sitka college will be reorganized to stay afloat

Posted: Friday, March 17, 2000

Sheldon Jackson College passed the test Thursday, when its board of trustees voted to keep the Sitka college open.

The unanimous vote came after a day of closed-door discussions about the future of the 122-year-old school, which has been in jeopardy because of financial problems.

The trustees have been considering closing the private four-year college since December. The city and community formed a task force to find ways to keep it open. With financial help from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Sitka City and Borough, the trustees also hired a consulting firm experienced in college development.

``I am amazed at what the community has done in this time of crisis to support the college,'' said Arliss Sturgulewski, a college trustee from Anchorage and a former state senator.

Over the next two years the college will be reorganized, said interim president Carlyle Haaland.

The core freshman program is being restructured, and the college may also focus on its areas of expertise, including marine studies, outdoor studies and teaching, Haaland said. More may be done to make the lifelong learning programs serve rural Alaska, such as offering village business entrepreneurship training.

``There's an expectation that the college will be, if not radically restructured, that it will at least be refocused so that it leads from its strengths and meets the needs particularly of this part of Alaska,'' said Haaland, who was hired out of retirement March 1 to oversee the transition.

``I really couldn't comprehend why anybody would close a school like this, not only because of its rich heritage and the role it played, but because of its rich assets,'' Haaland said.

The assets are primarily land, which the college will lease or sell to build up an endowment. The college owns about 260 acres, some on the waterfront, some adjacent to Sitka National Historical Park.

``Some of it is the most prime land in Sitka,'' Haaland said. ``The evaluation of that land is several million dollars.''

Currently the college has a $1.25 million endowment. As a rule of thumb, colleges should have about $10,000 in the endowment fund for every full-time student, Haaland said. Sheldon Jackson College had about 180 students enrolled last fall, but has a capacity for 250.

``How much is needed? I would say there's never enough,'' Haaland said. ``You invest it for growth and then you spend a lesser amount annually.''

A task force from the campus and community continues to look at ways to improve the college and its funding. The college administration will also aggressively pursue federal and corporate grants, Haaland said.

Students are optimistic about the proposed academic and fiscal changes, said student government president David C. Dobler.

``The financial side of things is making more sense and the work that they've been talking about is wonderful.''

Many had been very worried about the possibility of the college closing. ``It was pretty close to panic,'' he said.

Haaland expects there will be significant progress by the next trustees meeting in May.

``There's a tremendous amount of energy and optimism in this place,'' Haaland said, ``not only on the part of the students and faculty and trustees, but in the community.''

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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