Public regional comprehensives’ time to shine

These universities have risen to the occasion in applying the scholarship, research and unique capacities of their faculty and staff in responding to the COVID crisis, says the chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

There are more than 400 public regional comprehensive universities spread across the U.S. and we’re all a little different because we closely reflect regional differences. We are the pipeline for the regional workforce. We focus on student success. We are accessible, affordable, and efficient. But, we must admit, we often sit in the shadow of the flagship universities in our states, especially when it comes to scholarship and research.

Cathy Sandeen, University of Alaska Anchorage
Cathy Sandeen, University of Alaska Anchorage

The COVID pandemic has presented the perfect opportunity for regional comprehensives to shine. We constantly innovate as we meet financial constraints. We are experienced with providing thoughtful and engaging online and distance delivered courses, and so the pivot to a high proportion of remote delivery courses was easier for us. While athletics are an important part of our campus cultures, primarily supporting community engagement and student success functions, athletics do not drive broader campus decisions as they might at the flagship universities.

It has been particularly impressive how regional comprehensive universities have risen to the occasion in applying the scholarship, research, and unique capacities of their faculty and staff in responding to the COVID crisis. Our faculties tend to be drawn to applied research and service activities that have a direct impact on our surrounding communities. Staff and leadership have nurtured solid relationships with outside organizations as part of our natural community service orientation. Even though regional comprehensives may not be the places where a lot of basic research is done or where vaccines are developed, when COVID hit, the regional comprehensives stepped up. The following outlines the positive impact University of Alaska Anchorage has had in the short span of six months in science, innovation community support. These and similar positive effects can be found multiplied again and again across the entire country.

Our science faculty have driven many efforts to combat COVID-19 in our region. Working with the state board of nursing, our school of nursing graduated and licensed 75 senior nursing students early in order to meet the increased demand in the workforce. Public health faculty developed the predictive model used by the state, regions, and municipalities to track infection rates and hospital capacity. A biological science faculty member who had studied coronaviruses as a category for 15 years shifted his lab’s work to genetic sequencing of COVID-19. And when testing kits for COVID-19 were in short supply, our biological sciences faculty produced viral transport media (the fluid on the swabs in test kits) used in 30,000 tests distributed statewide.

Our non-science faculty also stepped up to contribute creatively to the efforts to fight against COVID-19. Economics faculty provided current data and forecasts on how the pandemic would affect the state and local economies. Engineering faculty deployed their 3-D printers to produce personal protective equipment and ventilator parts. They also have developed a way to test for the COVID-19 virus in wastewater and are working on a phone app that may automate and streamline the contact tracing process. Other faculty created a survey to track demand for and availability of personal protective equipment, especially in remote rural areas of the state.

The University of Alaska Anchorage also enhanced engagement with and support for the community at large. Our small business development center distributed millions of dollars of federal support and technical assistance to businesses in the region and state. We also quickly developed a series of short-term certificates, employer validated, in areas of high demand so displaced workers could retool and get back into the workforce in three semesters or less. We contracted with the state of Alaska to train and employ 500 contact tracers. Our sports arena was converted to an auxiliary hospital and student housing on one of our campuses was used to house healthcare workers and first responders. We produced a video series, called “Ask a UAA Expert,” to provide timely, relevant information useful to the public.

There was no clarion call for our people to do these things. There was no handwringing, no demands for resources or overload pay—faculty and staff just did what was needed when it was needed with no expectation of credit or recognition. These activities reflect our common mission. As a regional comprehensive university, we’re poised to respond thanks to our community connections and relationships, our deep knowledge of local needs, and our distinct orientation toward applied research that solves real problems. COVID-19 has given us a perfect opportunity to shine a bright light on the various—often below the radar—ways in which this sector of higher education serves the public every day.

In a time when the public perception of higher education could use a boost, regional comprehensive universities need to highlight the multiple ways they provide value well beyond our educational and workforce development missions. Yes, regional comprehensive universities are a significant public investment, but we are worth it. We need to remind our communities that we are here when they need us.

Cathy Sandeen is the chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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