Dubuque, Iowa, walks away from Alaska school talks

By Becky Bohrer
Juneau, Alaska (AP) June 2010

The fate of one of Alaska’s oldest schools is in doubt after an Iowa university abruptly walked away from talks to help resurrect it, citing a lack of community support.

University of Dubuque President Jeffrey Bullock announced the decision recently in an e-mail to the chairwoman of Sheldon Jackson College’s board.

“It appears that you aspire to have an entity take over your campus and, in effect, run it as it was previously run,” he wrote. “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.”

The decision is a blow to school and Sitka city leaders, who recently expressed optimism that a deal could be reached.

“We got the e-mail yesterday and said, ‘Where did THAT come from?”’ municipal administrator Jim Dinley said.

Dubuque appeared to be the school’s most serious suitor. The two sides had been in talks to revive at least part of the campus, which closed in 2007 amid financial problems. Dubuque was loath to take on new debt, and Sheldon Jackson trustees had been selling off parcels of the campus, trying to pay off its main creditor, pay down an estimated $8.5 million debt and avoid bankruptcy.

The plans caused divisions in Sitka, a rural community accessible by only air and water where ties to Sheldon Jackson run deep.

Some felt shut out of plans to bring the school back and would have preferred to see a tribal or community college instead of Dubuque’s plan to begin small and focus on a program built around Sheldon Jackson’s hatchery at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. But there had been no rallying of alumni or infusion of cash from private donors to help make that happen.

Sheldon Jackson President David Dobler, who once described efforts to bring in Dubuque as a “plan Z,” said he’s not sure what the next step will be.

The school was founded by the Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson in 1878 as a training school for Alaska Natives. It evolved into an open-admissions junior college and into one of this state’s few private colleges. Part of the campus is considered a national historic landmark; the school is credited with helping give rise to an influential Alaska Native political movement

Dobler said recently that for much of the school’s existence, it had no direct oversight from a board and no endowment. Enrollment never rose above 276, and, for years, Sheldon Jackson, like many other Presbyterian schools, relied on church and volunteer support to survive, he said.

Bullock, whose university underwent a successful restructuring of its own years ago, said that the door to future talks remains “at least slightly open,” but that won’t be the case if the city isn’t serious about its commitment to the college’s future.

A Dubuque donor was willing to commit $2 million that would go toward renovating a main hall where school operations would be based and an auditorium opened to the community, he said. Dubuque also wanted help raising money for additional building work. And it sought help from the city to either renovate or raze the Sage building to create a fisheries center, laboratory and aquarium, he said.

That building is one of the few on campus still open, but it’s forlorn, its exterior weather-beaten, and the existing aquarium includes a few scattered tanks. Bullock doesn’t consider it habitable or in nearly the condition necessary to make it a high-level educational facility or place for tourists.

Dinley said the city wanted Bullock’s help with fundraising to get that effort started. While officials envisioned a “much greater program” than Dubuque was proposing, to justify any financial investment, he said “everybody was still stepping forward.”

“It was a little bit of a surprise,” he said of Dubuque’s decision, “but Sitka’s pretty strong. We’ll bounce back.”

Nancy Yaw Davis, whose father was once a school leader, said bankruptcy may be the “best possible thing” for Sheldon Jackson.

The school needs a fresh start, she said.