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University of Alaska students facing turmoil under budget cuts, academic consolidation

August 15, 2019
By: Laura Lacy Graham

As the summer ends and students begin returning to school, the situation for students in the University of Alaska System is uncertain, although less so after recent negotiations between Gov. Mike Dunleavy and University of Alaska (U.A.) System’s administration. Two months ago, the university’s budget experienced a nearly 41 percent reduction in state support for its system triggered by Dunleavy’s FY 2020 state budget vetoes announced just days before the start of the state’s new fiscal year. While the University of Alaska System has been subjected to a number of funding reductions over the last five years, this year’s funding veto – the cutting of $130 million in state support atop the $5 million cuts approved earlier by lawmakers – was the largest.

Although the governor’s veto seemed to have blindsided the university, it was not entirely unpredicted.  Many state lawmakers also raised alarms early on as they began to delve into the administration’s proposed budget and fiscal policies. Two legislative special sessions later, state lawmakers were able to present a measure that would reverse much of the governor’s vetoes, and restore all but $20 million of the $130 million cut to the university. The governor has until Aug. 30 to act on the measure.

Until then, lawmakers and the University’s Board of Regents are continuing to move forward with the system’s enacted cuts, including whether (and how many) U.A. staff and faculty would be laid off, what programs to consolidate or eliminate, campuses to close, and plans for losses in student enrollment and tuition. The university system has already laid off 1,200 employees over the last five years due to declines in oil revenues and issues with the state’s budgets.

U.A. President Jim Johnsen began drafting a plan for a new University of Alaska, with the Board of Regents scheduled to formally decide on a path forward in September. This new plan is partly to address the cost-savings demanded by the Dunleavy administration, as well as to meet lawmakers’ directive to consider a plan to transition from three separately accredited academic institutions into a single accredited entity with multiple campuses. Such a plan is required to be submitted to lawmakers by Dec. 1.

While the U.A System is planning to merge its three universities into a single institution to cut costs, some state and education observers warn that doing so will be difficult, and also worry whether the consolidation will yield the swift reductions the governor desires, noting that such reductions are not likely to happen immediately. In Alaska, the campuses are hundreds of miles apart and program consolidation is expected to be extensive. For example, one plan presented to the board merges the state’s 17 schools and colleges into nine, with each housed on one campus, and includes the possibility of expanding its reach through more extensive on-line courses.  In moving towards such a one-university model, it would potentially allow U.A. to allocate a larger share of its future budget to student services and academics – more so than it does under its current model – but it also means program cuts and massive layoffs, as well as cuts to research funding. If the proposed plan is approved by regents and lawmakers, the transition is expected to begin in October, and continue through the spring and summer.

However, in a recent development reported  by Alaska Public Media, Dunleavy announced that he has agreed to restore roughly half of the funding he vetoed from the University of Alaska budget earlier this summer, and the cut would happen over three years instead of one. Under the agreement, signed by the governor, the U.A. President and the U.A. Board of Regents Chair, the University of Alaska would now face a $25 million cut in funding for this budget year, which began July 1, and over the next two years would see cuts of $25 million and $20 million for a total of $70 million. According to Johnsen, even with the reduced cuts, the consolidation of Alaska’s three universities into one continues to go forward, with the U.A. Board of Regents expected to review options at its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 12 and 13.

Alaskahigher ed, state budgets