Online education ad targeting University of Alaska students draws criticism

SUNY System Administration Building, the administrative headquarters of the State University of New York, located in Albany, New York. (Creative Commons photo by UpstateNYer)

University of Alaska students have plenty to worry about. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s line-item vetoes made deep cuts to the system’s budget. And separately this month, some 12,000 UA students were told there’s no money for their state scholarships, unless the Alaska Legislature votes to restore funding.

With so much uncertainty, many UA students are considering their options. That’s opened the door to controversial recruiting practices from at least one other university.

Sine Anahita is a professor of sociology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the president of the UAF faculty senate. She also created and moderates a Facebook page for the University of Alaska community. She said with the current budget crisis, she’s been spending much of her time there, sharing information and trying to dispel rumors.

That’s how she saw the ad.

“I am just constantly on Facebook,” Anahita said. “So it just came across my newsfeed.”

It was a sponsored post by the State University of New York, or SUNY. A black-and-white photo shows a young woman smiling down at a laptop. The post says this:

“Worried about the future of Alaska’s universities? SUNY is accepting students now. You can bring The State University of New York home with you and complete your degree from a name you can trust, 100% online!”

Anahita said her first reaction was indignation.

“Our students are feeling very stressed right now. Students don’t know whether they can continue at the University of Alaska,” Anahita said. “There’s just lots of anxiety and fear. And it sounded to me like the SUNY people were taking advantage of our students’ fear.”

Anahita took a screenshot of the ad and shared it with UAF administration. It quickly made its way to the office of the university president.

This sponsored post from the State University of New York, which appears to target University of Alaska students, appeared on Facebook in July 2019. After receiving complaints from UA officials, SUNY removed the ad. (Screenshot from Facebook, July 2019)

Robbie Graham, UA’s associate vice president of public affairs, was not pleased.

“This is a very difficult time for the university, as you can appreciate,” Graham said. “And it’s really hard to see those kinds of comments and those kinds of solicitations from a fellow university during a really difficult time like this.”

Graham confirmed UA President Jim Johnsen called SUNY to express his concern. On July 19, state senator Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki shared his own screenshot of the ad, along with a short note calling it “sad” that the governor’s vetoes “have caused outside institutions to target Alaskan students.”

The original post has since been removed.

In a written statement, SUNY press secretary Holly Liapis said SUNY contacted the University of Alaska to “extend our regrets regarding the Facebook advertisement.”

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