Living with Exigency
Published by: WCET | 9/20/2019
Today we welcome David Dannenberg, the Director of Academic Innovations, State Authorization, and eLearning with the University of Alaska Anchorage. David joins us to discuss the economic issues facing higher education in Alaska and his reactions to the financial exigency process the state went through. Many of you have read the news stories about this crisis, but perhaps have not heard from someone who went through and experienced the impact of the financial exigency on their daily lives.
As none of us can completely foresee the future of higher education in the U.S., I felt like this topic was an important one to showcase. While this post is a bit different from our traditional posts on Frontiers, I appreciate the thoughts, feelings, and advice that Dave has shared with us.
Lindsey Downs, WCET
Usually, when I hear the words “summer of surprises,” I think of the show Big Brother. But this summer, nothing could be more surprising than the political/economic crisis underway in the State of Alaska. During the past month, the University of Alaska system (UA) received a state funding cut of $135M, declared financial exigency on July 22, began examining merging our three university system into one, reached a budget compact with the Governor to create a three-year glide path cut of $70M instead of the aforementioned $135M, and finally cancelled the declaration of exigency on August 20. While many articles have dealt with the issues surrounding exigency and its impact on education in Alaska, most consider the situation at the institutional level or the effects on the local/state economy. The effect of exigency, and the time both leading up to it and after, on the people working within the compromised institution is missing from the conversation.
Please note: These are my own personal thoughts. I do not speak, nor claim to speak, on behalf of the faculty or staff at the University of Alaska Anchorage or other employees at our sister institutions, UAF and UAS. Nor do I represent the UA System, its administration, or the UA Board of Regents.
No one wants to talk about the actual physical, mental, and social effects on the faculty and staff of an institution that undergoes an exigency crisis. What is happening in Alaska is the latest of what I predict will become more common as the very nature, costs, and outcomes of higher education are politically, socially, and economically challenged. While so-called experts may have models or advice to fix the institution and the perceived problems, no one is talking about how life changing the process is to the institution’s employees. Therefore, I want to share my personal experience as an individual living and working within a system that has declared and rescinded exigency. I hope by doing so, I outline a path for colleagues unfortunate enough to find themselves in a similar position in the future.
I have heard that the most stressful life events in life include death, divorce, personal injury, marriage, job termination, and birth of a child. Working in higher education, we need to add exigency to that list. However, exigency is so much more than a singular event, as it contains multiple events all in one situation. Exigency, depending on the situation, can include job changes, moving, death, divorce, and marriage (in the academic sense of leaving one institution and joining another). Until you experience for yourself, you really don’t have the words to describe the true depth of what it is or the impact it has on everything. And I mean everything.
First, let me tell you, when an institution declares exigency the world stops. When our Board of Regents declared exigency it was as if the air, not just in the entire room, or even the building, but the entire campus, vanished. Everyone and everything came to a sudden halt; frozen in that one moment in time. I’m sure it only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. Then comes the rushing sensation of mixed emotions and reactions of trying to make sense of what just happened. You question if you heard it right and immediately ask a series of questions. What does that mean? What do we do? How soon will a pink slip appear in my mail or Inbox? Multiple questions that rush through your head and out your mouth to mix in a symphony of simultaneous expulsions of those around you.
The questions do not stop, not then or later, as every decision stimulates another set. Unfortunately, and I hate to say this, the answers are very few and very, very far between. Recently, my college-age son said he was struggling with taking action because the situation he found himself was so unknown. My advice to him was to live purposefully in the unknown long enough so it became known. Personally, I don’t enjoy living in ambiguity, but that is exactly what I did with exigency. As much as I wished otherwise, answers or even the path to find them are not immediately available. Plans need time to develop. Processes need time to implement, complete, and it is only then that you share results. Everything takes time, and it is only in time that answers will come. One must live, work, and move forward through the new unknown. I promise you will know the unknown in time.
Second, the depth of the emotions that come during this time while expected will surprise you. The cycle of grief is real and applies during an exigency crisis: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I felt and still feel them. I came to learn firsthand that this cycle is real. Denial comes with every decision or announcement. Every time I heard an update about our situation, it shocked me. I denied that anyone could possibility think that was a good decision. My wife described it the best; It’s like getting repeatedly hit in the gut for days or weeks at a time. Everything and everyone is tense. Every decision seems so large that I could only question the choice made. Finally, I realized it wasn’t because it was a bad choice but because the process to reach that decision did not involve me. I was trying to exert a sense of control over a situation I was powerless over. Now, I remind myself daily to live in that unknown.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. -Dylan Thomas
I’m not a mean or spiteful person by nature, but oh the rage and anger I have experienced this past month! Rage at the situation. Anger at those “who let it happen” (not that anyone could predict or control it). Outright hatred and disgust of political leaders. Anger and despair became my only companions until I fell into depression. Weeks went by where nothing mattered. I spent hours at work but accomplished nothing. I felt powerless to accomplish anything because everything seemed to depend on another pending decision. Another cycle of unknown, leading to anger at other things: a lack of direction, decisions, and clarity in a situation that, I recognize, is impossible to clarify.
With enough time (which I admit is different for everyone), those feelings began to recede. I recognize acceptance is knocking on my inner door. My depression has lifted. My anger and denial is slowly dying out. I will embrace acceptance soon and perhaps, by writing this, I already have. That does not mean I will move forward without trepidation, but I accept my position. I will focus instead on what I can control and accomplish for the good of our students. I know there are new opportunities ahead. I tell you this so you know to expect them too. Embrace them and allow yourself the freedom to move through them without guilt or denial that they exist.
Third, remember every person is an individual, with thoughts, feelings, fears, and concerns of their own. With exigency comes the natural question of what stays and what goes. Everyone has the same instinct for self-preservation. It’s only natural. But be careful you don’t take it too far. Craft arguments that provide data and contribute positively to ongoing conversations. Create new ideas for assessment processes or suggest ideas for new programs. Actively engage with emerging processes and participate as much as you can. But refrain from making personal attacks. Do not throw your friends and colleagues under the proverbial bus. It’s one thing to say we should examine a situation in this light or look at this data; It is quite another to suggest cutting such-and-such program(s).
On the other hand, do not take things you hear too personally (yes, I realize this is hard). Though we dislike admitting it, higher education is a business and sometimes restructuring must occur for the health of the institution. If you see your program or department on a list of items up for consideration, know it is nothing you did personally. It is only because of the changing nature of the institution. Just as we all want our students to be life-long, flexible independent thinkers and learners, so must we be ourselves. Remember, we are all the same people we were before exigency. Moving through the matrix of professional relationships is hard enough. Don’t make it harder on everyone by burning personal relationships at the same time. You will move through exigency and come out the other side. It will be that much sweeter to do so if you are walking alongside your long-time friends and colleagues.
Finally, the best advice I can give is to take care of one another. Make the time to spend time together outside of the office. Meet in small groups for coffee or large groups for an axe throwing contest (strangely, no one took me up on this idea). Talk to one another and share ideas, both good and bad. Laugh with one another and remind yourself that there is so much more to life than exigency. One of the best times I had during this experience was at a colleague’s last-minute potluck. Sequestered on a back deck, drinks in hand, on a warm summer night, we came up the absurd idea of turning a building into a pot-themed B&B (that is, assuming our worst fears, the campus closed and the space was empty). Sharing that time together, we made fun of our outside problems and the world seemed a little brighter. For the next few days things seemed better and the darkness inside me receded. I urge you, do not let exigency close you off from the outside world. Create the light needed to sustain you in this time of darkness. Trust me, both you and your colleagues will be better off for it.
The problem with exigency, or the threat of it, is that even when it is over, the ripple effect does not stop. Though the UA System cancelled exigency a month ago, we will never be the same. We escaped the threat of immediate fiscal disaster, but our state funding will decrease by $70M over the next three years. We must determine how to restructure programs and services in the best interest for our students. Already, most of our administrative departments are being merged into single system-wide units. Our academic programs are next. The UA Board of Regents approved an immediate accelerated academic review process earlier this month. Each day seemingly brings us closer to moving from three separately accredited universities into one. But, we aren’t there yet and are considering other restructuring models too.
I won’t lie. It is hard to keep moving forward with my day-to-day tasks. There is a cloud of “why bother?” hovering over my head all the time. However, through it all, I recognize that the University of Alaska system must continue to serve our students. We must look for ways to help our students succeed despite the possibility of program closures and reduce services. We must engage in and prioritize projects that better enable our diverse student body to reach their educational goals no matter their location. We must continually examine, test, and implement new processes, systems, and technologies to lower costs without impacting educational quality. I have an amazing set of colleagues here. We work every day to improve the lives of all Alaskans. It isn’t easy, but then again, some say nothing in life worth doing ever is.
My friends, nothing can prepare you for the magnitude of thoughts, feelings, and changes that happen following an exigency declaration. If I had to guess, even with everything I have shared it does not convince you that exigency and its aftermath is the worst thing in life that can happen on both a very personal and professional level. I know many reading this think it could never happen to you. I know I did. I sincerely hope that none of you have to face an exigency situation. I truly do. However, if you do, remember my words. Come back, read this again, and remember you are not alone. I, and all my colleagues within the University of Alaska, have experienced what you are going through. Reach out to us. Find us. We survived. You can too.
David R. Dannenberg
Director of Academic Innovations, State Authorization, and eLearning
University of Alaska Anchorage