Unable to sustain itself financially, Sheldon Jackson stopped offering classes and laid off nearly all its faculty and staff in summer 2007. Since then its leaders have been trying to whack away at about $13 million in debt by selling off assets, including property, and reporting their progress to the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
And now conversations with officials from the University of Dubuque – which itself survived a financial crisis within the last decade – are looking promising. A delegation of Dubuque officials, including university president Jeffrey Bullock, visited the Sheldon Jackson campus in Sitka in mid-August.
In an interview, Bullock said he hoped to complete a first draft of a “plan for transformation” for Sheldon Jackson during the fall.
The idea is that Sheldon Jackson would in some way become a part of the University of Dubuque, Bullock said. “It wouldn’t function as an autonomous entity,” he said — but in aligning the two there would be an effort to build on the history and programming strengths of both institutions.
“We certainly have a lot in common and are going to take a good hard look at this,” Bullock said. But “there are several obstacles we have to get over before I’d be comfortable taking this to our whole board for a vote.”
One big obstacle is the debt. “If it doesn’t look like that’s a real possibility for that to be gone, then there won’t be a deal,” Bullock said. “We just can’t do it without that being taken care of.”
David Dobler, who is pastor to the Presbytery of Alaska, also is president of Sheldon Jackson College — one of the college’s two remaining employees. Since the college stopped offering classes, Dobler said, he’s been working to sell real estate and other assets to pay off enough debt that the college could be sold to an educational institution consistent with the mission and history of Sheldon Jackson.
Sheldon Jackson is the oldest educational institution in Alaska, and has played a central role in the state’s educational and political history, Dobler said.
The school’s trustees “are very supportive and encouraged by the vision of the University of Dubuque as it could be expressed here at Sheldon Jackson College,” Dobler said in an interview.
For some, the idea of a university in Iowa considering establishing a presence in Alaska might seem mystifying at first, largely because of their geographical distance. But those familiar with the two institutions speak of a sense of common heritage in some aspects, more in common themes than in specifics.
Both are set in predominantly rural areas. Both rely on the land – Alaska in harvesting fish, Iowa in harvesting corn – and are concerned with issues of workforce retention.
Both have a Presbyterian connection. The University of Dubuque is home to the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, one of the 10 PC(USA) seminaries.
What eventually became Sheldon Jackson College was founded in the 1870s as a training school for Native American boys and was later named after Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary who worked among the native people of Alaska and who died in 1909. According to Dobler, the school has a history of reinventing itself — becoming, over time, a boarding school, a high school, a junior college, and eventually a four-year college. At this time, “the institution needs to reinvent itself again,” Dobler said.
The Dubuque heritage reflects some of the same human connections. Walter Soboleff, a centenarian and the first Native American ordained to the ministry in the Presbyterian church, graduated from the University of Dubuque and also Dubuque seminary. Henry Fawcett, a native of Alaska of Tsimshian heritage, became a professor of ministry at Dubuque seminary.
And now, Dubuque is interested in Sheldon Jackson. The idea is to focus on areas of shared interest. Dubuque’s environmental science program, for example, could be a good match for Sheldon Jackson’s fisheries and wildlife management program, Bullock said.
Bullock stresses that Dubuque’s recent history in turning itself around — moving from an undergraduate enrollment of about 500 to close to 1,400 now — puts his school in a good position to know what’s needed.
“We downsized, we eliminated programs, and had to make some difficult decisions,” he said. “We think with the right program and the right vision, Sheldon Jackson could experience a rebirth.”
And Bullock sees a continuing need for developing leadership among Alaska’s Native American people.
The native community and the Presbyterian church have enjoyed a very long and important history of service, and I just think if anything can be done, we should be doing it. I don’t see enough of that happening.”