A grassroots campaign ensures UAA’s geomatics students have courses for fall semester

by cmmyers  |   

When you think about community giving and rallying to support a cause, the story of how the engineering industry and UAA's College of Engineering (CoEng) alumni came together to support UAA's small, but mighty Department of Geomatics in the face of unprecedented budget cuts, comes to mind. 

Caixia Wang, chair of UAA's Department of Geomatics in the College of Engineering at a fundraising celebration for those who helped UAA's Department of Geomatics raise money to fund two critical faculty positions in the midst of a hiring freeze. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

As news broke across the state of Gov. Dunleavy's cuts to the University of Alaska (UA) earlier this summer, students, faculty, staff and leadership across the three UA campuses grappled with the staggering news. UA statewide leadership took immediate action enacting a hiring freeze systemwide and eventually declared financial exigency, leaving many university programs and departments between a rock and a hard place for the upcoming fall semester. 

One of those departments? UAA's Department of Geomatics in the CoEng.

With a recent faculty retirement and one who had left to take a job out of state, the department of four was down to two, and Caixia Wang, associate professor and chair of the department, found herself scrambling to fill two vacant positions.

"Those two faculty members had a high teaching note - which means that together they were teaching seven courses in the fall and eight in the spring - and those were all different courses," said Wang. By June this year, she said, they were in the process of hiring a new professor and had made an offer to their top candidate when the budget news hit local and national media, scaring off their candidate who ended up declining the department's offer for a position.

"Right after that we were in a hiring freeze," Wang said. "By July, the freeze was still in effect and we had seven courses we had to figure out how to cover in the fall - all of which were required courses. We had to be responsible for our commitment to our students and open those courses."

It was incredibly stressful and even if they could hire adjunct professors, it just wasn't practical given the number of lectures and labs that would be needed to be offered over the year. Wang said most adjuncts hired in the Department of Geomatics are industry professionals with full-time jobs, so she needed to come up with an alternative plan.

Sending out an SOS

With a little over a month before fall classes began and two full-time positions to fill, Wang, along with CoEng interim Dean Kenrick Mock and CoEng Senior Development Officer Jayna Combs worked together on a plan to appeal to the companies that rely on the graduates of UAA's Department of Geomatics.

UAA Senior Development Officer, Jayna Combs and chair of the Department of Geomatics Caixia Wang have a quick chat before guests arrive for a celebration of the tremendous fundraising effort to fund two critical faculty positions. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

The plan? To externally raise the funds for the two vacant faculty positions and fill them, all before the start of the fall semester. 

"We came up with an idea," Wang said. "We had to go fundraise - that was the only viable option under the hiring freeze." Once the plan was put into motion, word traveled fast, especially once Wang contacted the Geomatics Advisory Board Chair, Steve Buchanan, and a special meeting was called. During that four-hour meeting, Wang and the advisory board worked together on how they were going to reach out to industry partners and ask for their help. 

"We went over everything and the board told the dean how important the Department of Geomatics is to their industry and that they were willing to do whatever was needed to make this happen," said Wang, recalling that meeting. 

The group set a goal of raising about $159,000 and would need to act fast to meet their deadline for the start of the semester. All donations would be channelled through the newly created Excellence in Geomatics fund. In about two weeks, the grassroots campaign had raised $120,000 and by Aug. 30 had garnered a little over $150,000, almost to their target goal. Donations poured in from large companies, like ConocoPhillips, to smaller ones and individual alumni, with donations ranging from $10 to $40,000.

"People really stepped up," said Combs. "It was amazing and inspirational." Combs said it was a tremendous group effort by the department and the board. They spent hours calling contacts and sending out emails and the response from the industry and alumni community was overwhelming.

Going all in

"We're the only geomatics program in the state and one of the largest across the U.S., from the topics we cover to the students we have and the expertise in the faculty," said Wang. "This profession and program are so important to the industry. They see the need to educate the next generation to fill this gap, which is why we were so successful in being able to fundraise. The industry needs our students in order to recruit and work on their projects."

Murphy Quinn wears a Department of Geomatics vest during a class back in November 2015. (Photo by Phillip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Wang said that this particular corner of engineering is extremely important because it is such a comprehensive and interdisciplinary field. Geomatics professionals cover everything from traditional land surveying, mapping and geodesy to newer disciplines of geographic information systems and remote sensing. Wang pointed out that many of the country and state's geomatics professionals have already or are on their way to retiring, and UAA's geomatics program is crucial in filling the gap. She said graduates from their program have a 100% placement.

"I would say 90% of our employees have graduated from the program - so it's pretty vital to our existence," said Steve Buchanan, chair of UAA's Department of Geomatics Advisory Board and co-founder of SurvBase LLC, a geomatics company based in Anchorage. "We're vital to any kind of infrastructure development in the state, whether people realize it or not. Surveyors are becoming more high-tech and in-demand, and the existing workforce is starting to age out, so the ones that are coming into the profession are going to be even more in-demand."

It's a trend that's not just happening in Alaska, but also all over the country, a sentiment that Buchanan shares with Wang as she's seen the industry's demand for geomatics graduates grow steadily over the last decade. It's why she believes the geomatics and engineering community came together so quickly to support the department and ensure that its students would have the instructor and classes it needed for the upcoming school year.

Wang still gets emotional when she thinks about the tremendous effort and support that rolled in over the summer and said it gave her the strength to push forward despite all the uncertainty.

"We are responsible to our students," said Wang. "This fundraiser meant the world to me because it was not just about the money, it was the support and it made me feel like it's worthwhile to be here because it's not just a job - it's a community."

For information about how you can get involved, contact Jayna Combs, senior development officer for the College of Engineering at 907-786-1796 or jcombs6@alaska.edu.

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement

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