My Turn: The DNA of University of Alaska Southeast

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2008

In their book, "The Leadership Challenge," James Kouzes and Barry Posner write: "by looking over the history of their organization, members begin to see the organizational strengths and weaknesses, the patterns and themes that have carried them to the present."

The organizational history of the University of Alaska Southeast begins with the merger of Juneau Douglas Community College and Southeast Senior College. It was a compulsory and contentious marriage that resulted in the formation of a new institution - UAJ (later named UAS).

The plans were finalized in 1979. However, the final merger actions by the University of Alaska Board of Regents violated the Alaska Open Meetings Act. A lawsuit over the merger then ensued, reaching the Alaska Supreme Court in 1984. The Board of Regents had failed to "mention the potential merger of the JDCC and the SSC" in the agenda and the board went "into executive session, closed to the public," then "reconvened and without further discussion adopted a resolution to consolidate the JDCC and SSC into the UAJ." (Alaska Community Colleges' Federation of Teachers, Local No. 2404 v. University of Alaska Southeast 677 P. 2d 886).

It was not an ideal start for the new institution. The validity of the merger was initially thrown into doubt, and the Board of Regents was forced to reconsider the issue, ultimately coming to the same decision. In addition to the lawsuit, serious questions remained about the administration and organization of the newly formed university.

UAS would essentially come to consolidate all of the institutions of higher education in Southeast Alaska into one, swallowing three community colleges (Juneau-Douglas, Ketchikan and Sitka) with numerous associate and certificate programs; a liberal arts college with limited bachelor's degrees; a sea grant school of fisheries with a research emphasis; as well as business, public administration and education schools offering undergraduate and graduate degrees. From the outset, UAS had to encompass an incredibly wide mission for such a small institution

The breadth of UAS' mission stretched the organization to its limits. There were highly charged questions about faculty unions, budgets and basic assumptions about the mission and goals of the university. Some still linger today. While UAS has grown, it still has much of the same genetic organizational code. Today we can trace many of our dominant and recessive traits, our defects and strengths back to our history. The periodic lack of clarity in institutional values and uncertainty regarding core competencies may stem from having so many of each; moreover, being born with a split personality, results in occasional instability in the goals and mission of the institution. Tangible examples abound. There are still two unions at UAS, two workload tracks, and perplexing questions about the role of research, distance learning, targeting traditional and/or adult learners, and about appropriate performance measures to apply across an institution that awards both technical certificates and graduate degrees.

But just as changes (mutations) can happen in nature, they can also happen in organizations. This is especially true with the changing strands of faculty, administration, and environmental and economic conditions. With such a variety of audiences at UAS, the schools (Arts & Sciences, Professional Studies, Career Education) might evolve to become highly autonomous units, each formulating their own performance measures, budgets, and missions. This may be the natural course of organizational evolution given UAS' genetic blue print.

UAS is also a very young and flexible institution, not yet locked into rigid traditions or organizational norms. Spanning just three decades, UAS is about the same age as its average student today. The UA system is also undergoing an Academic Master Plan to provide strategic vision to all its campuses. It is an ideal time to look again at some of the unanswered questions from the past. We cannot change our DNA (and segregate campuses) but we can better adapt to the environment of the 21st century and realign all parts of the organizational body to those needs and challenges.

• Michael Boyer is a graduate and current faculty member at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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