UAA may shrink outdoor program

Posted: Wednesday, September 25, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- University of Alaska Anchorage administrators are considering a plan to fold the university's outdoor education program into the four-year degree program offered by the physical education department.

The move is drawing fire from backers of the Alaska Outdoor and Experiential Education program who had hoped to see the university expand it into a four-year degree program next year.

The university's proposal calls for one new full-time faculty member to lead the outdoor program, with help from part-time faculty adjuncts. Under that plan, an as-yet unnamed degree program would involve outdoor education courses but would also include programs in P.E., coaching and officiating, and fitness.

UAA couldn't afford four-year degree programs in both outdoor education and P.E., said Jan Gehler, dean of UAA's Community and Technical College.

But critics of the proposal say it could compromise student safety. The university's outdoor program instituted new safety measures in the wake of the 1997 mountaineering disaster that killed two and injured 12 in a beginning climbing class on Ptarmigan Peak. Critics say they fear losing gains made since the accident in managing risk to students.

''It could potentially destroy all the positive steps,'' Daryl Miller, a mountain ranger at Denali National Park and Preserve, recently told the University of Alaska Regents during a meeting in Anchorage.

Miller, hired by the university to review the Ptarmigan disaster, credited outdoor program coordinator Deb Ajango with the program's turnaround.

Ajango, who started her job a month before the incident, wrote the plan that restructured the program. In 2000, she edited a 220-page manual on managing risks to participants in outdoor adventure programs called ''Lessons Learned: A Guide to Accident Prevention and Crisis Response.'' Calls continue to come in from around the country for copies.

The university plans to continue to rely on an established internal committee that monitors risks outdoor students face, Gehler said.

Eliminating outdoor education as a stand-alone program also eliminates the possibility of expanding its offerings, such as adding a much-needed statewide avalanche forecast or warning center, said Jerry Lewanski, the incoming superintendent of Chugach State Park.

''Their institute seems like a natural steppingstone,'' Lewanski said.

UAA still needs to hammer out specifics for the new physical education and outdoor education degree program. Then the program needs approval from several internal committees and the Board of Regents, most likely at the board's meeting next June.

Ajango is leaving the program at the end of the semester and hopes to start her own business. This week, she was named executive director of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association, based in Anchorage.

Ajango said she is disappointed the outdoor program didn't win approval to create a four-year degree from Provost James Chapman. More than 90 students signed a petition saying they would enroll, she said.

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