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University of Dubuque pulls back SJC campus offer

Two years of talks fail to produce agreement for a ‘satellite’ school

June 9, 2010

SITKA, Alaska

The University of Dubuque has decided to “step away” from plans to collaborate with Sheldon Jackson College (SJC) to revive part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related school. 

In a June 4 letter to the SJC trustees, Dubuque President Jeffrey Bullock said the Iowa college has problems with the trustees’ response to UD’s proposal for taking over a part of the campus, and also with the reaction of city officials to UD’s proposal for a financial contribution by the city. 

“It appears you aspire to have an entity take over your campus and, in effect, run it as it was previously run,”' Bullock said in the letter to the SJ trustees. “Obviously we do not believe this is the right way to pursue education in Sitka, but it is your campus and, as trustees, that is clearly and rightly your decision to make.”'  

Bullock also described being disappointed at the city of Sitka’s response to UD’s plans, which he said went from a commitment of $5 million to “maybe in the future type of arrangement.”'  

The city and UD have been talking for more than a year about the potential of the two colleges collaborating and reopening part of the campus. SJC shut down academic operations in June 2007. The six 1911-era wood shingle buildings of the main campus and the college library have been shut down, but five other buildings are in use by other organizations.  

UD submitted a plan that called for renovating two of the old buildings — North Pacific Hall and Whitmore Hall — and Allen Auditorium, and building a new fisheries center to replace the Sage Building. UD committed to $2 million and estimated the total bill at $8 million.  

Under the plan, Dubuque would set up a remote campus offering a limited number of programs focusing on the natural resources of the Sitka area.

 City Administrator Jim Dinley said today he has not talked to Bullock or SJC trustees, but was aware Bullock had written to the UD community as well as the trustees.  

When asked whether it appeared the letter marked the end of the road for a community collaboration with UD to reactivate the campus, Dinley said, “If you read the letter, it appears to be.”'  

He said the letter was “somewhat disappointing.” But he said the city tried to do what it could to promote the relationship between UD and SJC, including traveling to UD to talk about ideas of ways the city could help, and working on the state purchase of SJC’s Stratton Library.  

“I think we worked pretty hard,” he said. “It’s not like we said, ‘let's make this difficult.’”

Dinley said he didn’t know the city’s next move would be.  

“We don’t have a move,”' he said. “It’s still a private university, and a private college. ... We were just sitting on the sidelines, trying to make it happen.”'  

Garry White, Sitka Economic Development Association, said it appeared UD’s expectations for the city’s financial commitment appeared high for what the city would be getting in return.  

“I don’t believe they’re that interested,”' White said. “When they came in August they were talking about nursing, and a number of other things, they were going to do here.”  

He said there were several items in UD’s proposal that fell short of the city’s expectations. Initial plans called for two professors and 15 students for a few months at a time.  

White said he believes it was unrealistic to think it was possible for the community to raise the $4 million needed for the effort, without help from Dubuque.

“SJC would have done it already, if they could,” White said. He said city representatives had discussed funding ideas and possibilities for education programs, but never made a $5 million commitment to UD. White said he does not feel it’s fair to blame the city for the deal’s falling through.     

“It’s disappointing they are going to lay it at the foot of the community,”' White said.  

In addition to a financial commitment from the city, Bullock’s proposal called for a fundraising campaign and establishing a “constant cash stream”' through a Sheldon Jackson College Foundation. Dubuque would renovate some of the old buildings and replace the Sage Building with a modern fisheries education building.  

“Granted, the nature of our program proposal was to begin small, understand the market and then to grow as the opportunities were identified, rather than to replace one former model of educational enterprise with a similar model,”' Bullock wrote.  

“It is a model that we have tested, tried and implemented here at UD, and a model that we believed we could have implemented in Sitka.” He cited his own college’s successful rebuilding plan that carried the college from the brink of closure and 600 students 10 years ago to today’s 1,600-student enrollment and an annual budget of $40 million.  

“Though not on the same scale, we had hoped to make a similarly positive impact in Sitka and, by extension, throughout Alaska. Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that the conditions for programmatic growth and expansion on your campus or in the city of Sitka do not exist in a way that would allow us to be both credible and successful.” 

He also had some harsh words about Sitka city representatives.  

“It is also abundantly clear to me that the officials representing the City of Sitka have absolutely no intention of trying to 1) understand our proposal, or 2) understand the very competitive nature of higher education. Truthfully, this is the most discouraging aspect of my disappointment.”'  

Bullock said private universities can’t survive without support from local civic and political leadership.  

“There is a reason, then, why private schools such as UD are not in abundance in the State of Alaska. We could not find a way to mount a successful program in Sitka without either the financial or political support of city officials.”'  

 The end of the letter wishes the members of the board his best “as you chart out the best plans for Sheldon Jackson College.”'  

On June 8, the SJC trustees issued the following statement:

“The Sheldon Jackson College Board of Trustees is saddened and disappointed that the University of Dubuque has determined that sufficient conditions do not exist to enable it to open a satellite campus in Sitka. While the trustees are disappointed in the outcome, they appreciate the interest that the University of Dubuque expressed in the Sheldon Jackson College campus.

“The Trustees will continue to explore all options to retain the historic, educational and cultural mission of Sheldon Jackson College, and will consider all serious offers regarding the campus.”

Sheldon Jackson College was founded in 1878 by legendary Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson, and was the oldest continuously operating institution of higher education in Alaska until it suspended academic operations at the conclusion of the 2007 school year.

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