Specialized University Campuses Shortchange Student Opportunities

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By Richard Shu, Opinion Editor

Public universities across the country are strapped for cash and looking for creative ways to make ends meet. But the University of Alaska’s latest belt-tightening measure is one of the most radical and desperate so far. On Tuesday, the Board of Regents announced that it would propose a major restructuring of the three University of Alaska campuses; the end goal is that each would focus on a specific set of disciplines. The University of Alaska Anchorage would specialize in social sciences and policy studies, the University of Alaska Southeast would focus on marine biology and mining and the University of Alaska Fairbanks would become the science and engineering campus. No other state university system has undertaken such an explicit separation of disciplines, and the long-term consequences of this separation could be catastrophic for the quality of undergraduate education.

In the short run, this plan poses a pressing existential threat for programs outside of a campus’s areas of focus. A literature program at the Fairbanks campus, for example, is unlikely to survive the budget cuts. Additionally, none of the campus cores provide for performing arts or fine arts, which distressingly suggests that the University of Alaska is looking to turn its schools into professional pipelines rather than venues for academic exploration.

But even in the long run, this kind of separation of disciplines can only hurt prospects for students. Simply being in the same environment as other disciplines is incredibly valuable for education. It gives students the opportunity to socialize and work collaboratively with other majors and to gain broader perspectives on the world. Many of the best business ideas are the result of a marriage between social awareness and technological know-how. But with awareness and know-how hundreds of miles apart, the opportunities for this kind of creative union are thin.

The separations will also make student lives much more difficult in general. Woe betide the freshman who enters without knowing what they want to major in, or the student who decides that their department isn’t for them. Without the opportunity to try out courses outside of their school or speak with students of a different major, students won’t have the opportunity to explore their passions to the fullest.

Every school is naturally stronger in some departments than others, but deliberately creating and emphasizing these specializations between schools only serves to shut off opportunities for students. If the university’s goal is to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in its students, to prepare them for the complexities of the modern workforce, it won’t do so by producing hyper-specialized wonks. Broad opportunities and perspectives are just too valuable for students, and NYU in particular thrives on the multitude of its students’ interests. The University of Alaska, by stifling these opportunities, is shortchanging its students’ futures.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 22 print edition. Email Richard Shu at [email protected]