Sheldon Jackson Suspends Operations

Small Alaska college is out of cash and its 100 faculty and staff members are out of their jobs.
July 2, 2007

Sheldon Jackson College gathered faculty and staff members for a meeting Friday and told them that Saturday would be their last day of work. The Sitka, Alaska college -- whose history dates to 1878 -- announced that it was suspending operations for a year to "determine a financially viable future" for the institution.

"We simply do not have the cash to sustain Sheldon Jackson College in its current form," David Dobler, president of the college, said in a statement. The college has $6 million in debt and while the insured valued of the institution is $35 million, much of that is in land and physical assets that do not provide operating support.

The college has about 100 full-time students and another 200 or so part-time students. Sheldon Jackson officials are notifying the students and pledged to help them transfer to other institutions.

The announcement from Alaska follows by only a few weeks news that Antioch College will suspend operations at the end of the coming academic year. While Sheldon Jackson and Antioch are different in many ways, they are similar in that their enrollments are small (Antioch was projecting just over 300 for the coming year) at a time that a number of small private colleges have struggled financially. A similarly small institution, Sierra Nevada College, announced last year a plan to forge an alliance with Michael Milken's education company to restructure and survive.

While the enrollments and endowments of these institutions are small, they all offer kinds of education that aren't offered everywhere. Sheldon Jackson was founded by Presbyterian missionaries who wanted to educate Native Alaskans. While the missionary role (and the formal Presbyterian tie) are gone, about one third of the college's students are Native Alaskans and the college still identifies itself as a Christian institution.

Chris Bryner, dean of student and community affairs, said in an interview Sunday that the most popular majors -- environmental studies and outdoor leadership -- make use of the college's location. The college also operates its own salmon hatchery, he said.

College officials have wanted to see enrollment grow to 180 full-time students, he said, but the small size has created an environment of close student-faculty interaction. "I could name you every student and so could everyone else there," said Bryner.

"This is a college in an incredibly beautiful part of Alaska that really opens up opportunities for people," he said.

Bryner spoke from an airport Sunday. He believes he's out of job, but he's returning from vacation to help students transfer.

The statement from the college said that during the next year, college leaders will try to work with state and federal officials and others to identify ways for the college to resume operations. A few employees may be hired back immediately if they work for "cash positive" parts of the college, like the hatchery.

Matthew Goff, who teaches mathematics at Sheldon Jackson, said he was aware that the college was facing cash flow problems, so the news wasn't a total shock. He said that he hoped the college's role in Sitka and educating Native Alaskans would motivate groups to help. Goff said that employees were told Friday that they would receive pay for any vacation or severance owed. But Goff is among those who work on nine-month contracts so while he had assumed until Friday that he would be getting a new contract to start in August, he isn't expecting any severance.

The college has "a very close community, almost a family type of atmosphere," he said. A "large" intro class might have 20 or so students, while 5-6 students is common for many courses, and some upper level programs have 1-2 students.

"This was a place where you didn't disappear and turn into a number," Goff said.


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