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State of the University

University of Alaska President Pat Pitney addresses the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.
University of Alaska President Pat Pitney addresses the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.

University of Alaska President, Pat Pitney gave her annual “State of the University” address Tuesday in Fairbanks.

On Monday, she covered finances and enrollment and how the statewide institution is recovering from drastic state funding cuts four years ago with Alaska legislators on the Senate Education Committee.

Pitney told them the statewide system has been focusing on several areas to expand: increasing enrollment, particularly in Teacher, Nursing and Alaska Native Success programs; Arctic Policy and Research, Fisheries and Ocean Science and throughout the system, partnering with industry to develop the workforce.

One example is the drone program at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“It would change our landscape if we have unmanned planes, flying freight, flying fuel, doing search and rescues, monitoring wildfires, monitoring the pipeline, counting animals, counting fish for a fishing game. It changes the economic equation to have Alaska be the place where we try out this commercial industry,” Pitney said.

She said UAF is the top Arctic research academy in the country and rated third in the world, and that is attracting new students.

Pitney told the legislators that systemwide this year, there was 1% growth in enrollment, and next year she anticipates 3%, as potential students see the system stabilizing. After Governor Mike Dunleavy cut $70 million from the University starting in Fiscal Year 2020 the system lost 1,500 faculty and staff members.

“As we rebuild-- and not rebuild, as we fill the programs that we have, because there is a lot of programs that we were able to maintain through the crisis. Yes, there were programs we had to let go, but there were many programs that were maintained and now people have the confidence to come and use them.”

Two of those programs are health professions and teaching. Pitney described to legislators a different challenge for each. She was helped by Deborah Craig, Dean of the College of Health at University of Alaska Anchorage. She told the legislators the nursing school has plenty of student applicants, but not enough nursing instructors.

“Currently faculty can make about twice as much if they go out and work clinically. Fortunately, we have a lot of faculty that love what they do, and so we have a lot of faculty that are staying. But one of our biggest challenges with this expansion is to hire enough faculty to accommodate the growth in student numbers,” Craig said.

Alaska is desperate for K-12 teachers, and the UA School of Education has room for students, but the profession doesn’t look very attractive statewide. Pitney says they are using Alaska as a selling point to get college students to become teachers.

“Now we're not even at average on our teacher pay, and we have one of the least desirable retirement systems. So, what we're talking about are people who want to be here until we, we address some of those other big systemic things,” Pitney said.

Pitney said this fiscal year is the first in nine years that the university isn't grappling with major state budget reductions. And she is asking for a 24 million dollars increase from the legislature, saying it would prevent programs closing or losing more faculty.

“But I really wanted to focus on that, maintaining stability, ‘cause that's the base on which we can work with partners and focus on enrollment,” Pitney said.

The slides from her presentation to the Senate Education Committee are here:

The text of her address to the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce is here:

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.