Experiences from Alaska - Carraher

November 1, 2019

Threats to public education are a threat to applied anthropology: Experiences from Alaska

I write to the SfAA newsletter to call attention to the erosion of public education in the United States and how this threatens applied anthropology praxis, using my home state of Alaska as an example. 

As I write this, I can still see the scars of last November’s 7.1 earthquake upon the walls of my office building. To say that Alaska has had a “rough year” is an understatement. We are dealing with natural disasters, disappearing sea ice, erosion of archaeological sites and contemporary villages, wildlife die-offs, record heat waves, and evacuations due to wildfires. On top of all that, we are also reeling from the national administration’s destabilizing of federal agencies that operate in Alaska, and an ever-tightening tourniquet of State budget cuts. We already were not in peak form when Governor Dunleavy’s massively unpopular budget cuts were announced earlier this summer. These new cuts were slammed down on an already emaciated university system which has seen progressively deeper budget cuts for 5 out of the last 6 years. Now add University of Alaska President Johnsens’ controversial rush to try to consolidate 16 campuses across the entire state into a singly-accredited university governed through a top-down administration out of touch with faculty and student voices. 

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) has given notice that Johnsen’s current lack of faculty and student guidance in his push for statewide consolidation may result in all our universities losing accreditation – which would leave the largest state in the U.S. without any public university or community colleges whatsoever. Zero. This is a threat for applied anthropology in Alaska. Each of our universities employ anthropologists who do applied research and advocacy all over the state, and many of the applied anthropologists working in Alaska are educated here at home. I would like to use this space in the newsletter to describe the situation we are facing in Alaska so that it may serve as a warning and a rally cry to applied anthropologists in other states and regions.

Alaska has a homegrown history of applied anthropological practice, described previously by Dr. Kerry Feldman in several articles. A large factor in this history has been the development of a social network of anthropologists working within and outside of academia across Federal, State, Tribal, non-profit, and private agencies, and with different Alaska Native communities. Most of the membership of the Alaska Anthropological Association is comprised of applied anthropologists, academic faculty who do applied work of various kinds, and our students. Several Alaska Anthropological Association members do applied research in the North but live outside of Alaska, although most of our Association’s members are based in-state. All three University of Alaska main campuses (in Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau) are different and uniquely developed to serve their surrounding regions and communities, and all have contributed to applied anthropology in Alaska in noteworthy ways. However, here I focus upon UAA’s connection to Alaska’s applied anthropology community, through our MA program in applied anthropology. 

We built our entire MA program at UAA to provide students with a place-based approach to applied anthropology, focusing on the circumpolar North. We prepare students to conduct applied research in collaboration with community- and other stakeholder groups by providing real-world experience through practicums and a research-based thesis, as well as introducing students to the current community of anthropologists living and working in Alaska. Many agencies in need of anthropologists in Alaska desire hiring people with previous experience working in Alaska’s geophysical and sociopolitical climate. Our Tribal corporation system, for example, is unique compared to Indigenous governance in the Lower 48, and it is vitally important for applied anthropologists to be familiar with the ins and out of Alaska laws and the history of previous research relationships with Alaska Native and other local communities.  Our MA program provides training in anthropological theory, methods, ethics, praxis, and equally-importantly, in an Alaska-specific context. 

Since first admitting students in 1999, our department has awarded 65 MA degrees. Of those, 95% found employment during or shortly after graduation. Over 80% are employed in their field of study (largely in applied anthropology careers), and over 60% stay in Alaska to work. UAA’s Department of Anthropology is a major producer of applied anthropologists and archaeologists working in Alaska. Many of the agencies hiring applied anthropologists are based in Anchorage. 

All of our faculty do applied and community-engaged research in Alaska in biological-, cultural-, linguistic-, and medical anthropology, and archaeology. Much of this work is in partnership with Indigenous communities and Tribal organizations. Additionally, we work with an all-volunteer Graduate Advisory Board of practitioners to ensure our MA program stays attuned to the evolving research and advocacy needs of Alaskan communities and agencies. Our Graduate Advisory Board members are representatives of Federal, State, Tribal, non-profit, private, and community-based organizations – many of the advisory board’s representatives today are also UAA Anthropology alumni, while some are UAF alumni. More than once, the Graduate Advisory Board has risen to show support for UAA when talks of budget cuts and possible program eliminations raise their ugly heads, or when a top-level university administrator needs to hear a convincing answer to the question “why do we need a graduate program in Anthropology in Anchorage?” You would think proving our worth to big decision-makers in the university and state government would be remembered, at least by someone. Instead we are being asked to justify our existence over, and over, and over. 

Just two days ago, I received an email from our College stating that our MA program will undergo an expedited program review as UAA braces for whatever vision the president and Board of Regents decide for the university system’s future. Nevermind that our university was just re-accredited last year, with several commendations; or that between 2013-2015 all of our academic programs were reviewed under a “Prioritization” process in which our MA program was slated to be “maintained” (not reduced or deleted). There is push back from the Faculty Senate and our faculty union, who rightly point out that this latest request for expedited review is not listed on anyone’s workload and will demand even more time and energy from an already over-taxed faculty. Although there is language in the review template about how to assess the quality of an academic program as well as local need for graduates in a discipline, we fear that decisions will ultimately be made based on cost, enrollment, and revenue. (No one even has time to apply for grants right now!) We fear that lower applications and enrollments in our MA program will be interpreted as reduced demand for applied anthropology education at UAA. 

What is missing from this template is any space in which to explain the role that progressive annual budget cuts, decreased staff support for faculty, increased demands on faculty’s time for teaching, program reviews and other administrative functions, and faculty attrition have played in our dwindling MA cohorts - not to mention the impact that news of Alaska’s volatile political situation and increasing economic austerity is having on declining MA program applications. The need for applied anthropology is still great in Alaska, but our ability to be able to supply well-trained MA graduates with real-life experience working in Alaska is at great risk. 

Although Alaska is geographically and socially unique in many ways, the threats we are facing are not. Public education systems nationwide are facing increasingly diminishing political support and being sneakily encroached upon by privatization in various forms. Public university education is being talked about as a frivolous extra “expense” on state governments, rather than a thoughtful investment in a state’s local future. Maine, Georgia, and Arizona have recently experimented with university campus consolidations, all to find out that consolidation doesn’t really save as much money as its champions believe it will. But none of these states have done so at the scale or pace that Alaska’s university president and Board of Regents are gunning for. Just as scientists point to Alaska as a gauge for how severe climate change will impact human societies if not effectively dealt with soon, so to, it seems, Alaska is providing a gauge for how collapsing public funding, social welfare, and public education plays out in real time. 

I know here that faculty and staff are fleeing, and not being replaced. Our students are disappearing too. Enrollment of returning students to UAA took a significant dive this Fall term. Those who have the means are looking for jobs and opportunities out of state. Those who don’t have the means are facing difficult and limited futures in Alaska with evaporating public support. Applied anthropologists overwhelmingly align ourselves and our work in service to marginalized and oppressed communities – be these the communities we originally come from or the communities with whom we come to build positive relationships. We face a near future in which the communities we research and advocate for with will be further harmed by climate change and evolving forms of structural violence. Simultaneously, the people who wish to train in applied anthropology will have diminishing access to place-based and community-engaged education in Alaska. 

In the past few years of annual belt-tightening at UAA, our program has looked to the agencies locally where applied anthropologists work for support. But I think we need to go bigger and longer. We’re tapped out in Alaska – we need to tag teammates from our discipline who are not already overextended themselves. What if national academic and professional organizations could work across their memberships to develop advocacy in support of applied anthropology educational programs? I am not sure what that could or should look like, or even if such an effort is already being made by someone, somewhere. But what I can do now is put out a call for information, and outline some barriers that would have to be addressed first in any effort to provide support for applied anthropology programs at struggling universities. 

First, our union leaders and university administrators are usually not anthropologists and we often have to spend precious time explaining what applied anthropology is and why maintaining a program is important. Too often we succumb to parroting the catch phrases they want to hear - “there’s high job demand,” or “there’s high student demand for the program.” While both have been historically true in Alaska, this saps energy and time away from explaining applied anthropology’s contributions to matters of social justice. There’s also a general sense amongst us that no one “up top” would actually give as much weight to ethical and moral reasons for running a program as they do to financial reasons.

Second, our own community partners and agencies that employ applied anthropologists in Alaska are tapped out. We appreciate very much their repeated efforts to show support of our program, but are also sensitive to their needs to focus on maintaining their own work under similarly shrinking budgets. Faculty at all three universities are in similar states of shock and uncertainty - no one knows where Alaska is headed right now.

Support from applied anthropologists on a larger scale - from those working outside of struggling university systems - could potentially bring new energy and a more visible relevancy to applied anthropology educational programs. But again, I am not sure what this would look like or if any sort of model for this kind of support already exists. To be blunt, I rarely attend the American Anthropological Association meetings, where the National Association for Practicing Anthropologists meets each year, because they are prohibitively expensive and in the middle of the fall teaching term. I have not been able to attend the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings as much in recent years, because while more affordable, they are usually held in the middle of spring term, and often within a week or so of the Alaska Anthropological Association meetings. In short, I don’t think creating more meetings or conferences to talk about these issues is going to work because many of the people who should be there probably can’t be. It makes me think that online organizing could address these issues somewhat, travel and funding at least, but what about time?
In journals such as Human OrganizationPracticing Anthropology, and The Annals of Anthropological Practice, there has been some attention paid to the need for faculty in applied anthropology programs to have their applied and community-engaged work be recognized along with traditionally-valued academic or “pure” theoretical research, and for applied anthropology programs to be able to provide flexible options for students to make meaningful partnerships with community groups to do applied research theses. There is acknowledgement that today’s applied anthropology benefits greatly from students having access to specifically-applied educational programs. There are resources for students, post-docs, and junior researchers, and all of this is great, but very individually-focused. From what I am aware of, there is not any real talk (yet) about how struggling public university systems may negatively impact applied anthropology as a discipline. Alaska’s experiences now may serve as a warning for similar threats to applied anthropology education elsewhere, in places where public education is being gutted in the name of saving money. Finally, I’d like to say that if we lose our public universities in Alaska, people will be harmed. Often there is talk about a “brain drain” when people leave a state or region to seek education elsewhere, because many of them will end up not returning home to work or live. I refuse to call it that, because it implies that those who leave are smart and those who stay are not - which is itself a form of violence because such talk masks the economic and social privilege behind student flight. Those who stay can’t leave, for financial, family care-giving, or other equally important reasons. For us that will be thousands of Alaskans who are intelligent and passionate about being educated in Alaska to become professionals serving their home regions and communities. If our MA program in applied anthropology disappears, so too will our legacy of providing locally-trained, community-engaged applied anthropologists in a state that has a huge need for applied anthropological research and advocacy. It seems we could use help thinking about collective-resources rather than individual-resources for supporting applied anthropology programs across the nation. 

Sally Carraher, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Alaska Anchorage

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