Alaska Lawmakers Fail to Avert Sweeping Cuts to the University System – Massive Cuts Likely!

Dear Commons Community,

The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents has $135 million to cut, and on Monday its members will consider a few options for how to do it. One would involve having each of the system’s three universities to designate its own cuts.

Another would involve shuttering regional campuses.

Or the three universities, which currently offer a broad range of programs, could focus more narrowly on a few core programs, such as fisheries, engineering, or nursing, with each institution serving as a “lead campus” for particular disciplines.

A fourth option would be to consolidate the system’s three separately accredited universities into one. That option has broad support among Alaska lawmakers, as well as some board members, but faculty leaders are deeply skeptical about it.  

As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The impasse over the Alaska system’s budget isn’t over yet. But on Friday the university officially lost 41 percent of its state funding in one fell swoop, as lawmakers failed to override Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s big cut to the system. Legislators in both the House and the Senate adjourned until next Wednesday, well past the Friday-night deadline for overriding Dunleavy’s line-item vetoes of the state budget.

Dunleavy, a Republican who took office in December, has argued that the Alaska system is spending too much state money per student — about $16,300, more than twice as much as the national average of $7,600, according to a budget memo from the governor’s office. The $135-million cut will reduce that to $11,000 per student.

A system spokeswoman said that applying a national average to Alaska doesn’t take into consideration the relatively high cost of having far fewer students spread over a much larger geographical area.

Beginning immediately, the sprawling university system will be under the gun to get smaller, slashing its budget while maintaining its commitment to students. Fall classes start next month. Here’s where things stand.

The system is expected to declare a financial emergency and some cuts will happen right away.

The system will be forced to consider closing campuses, consolidating services, and making significant layoffs as officials look for the least-damaging way to plug a large budget hole. University regents are expected to declare financial exigency on Monday, allowing campuses to ax programs and lay off tenured professors more easily.

Leadership Insights: Managing a Crisis

The university’s Faculty Alliance urged the regents on Friday not to declare financial exigency until the special legislative session is over.

The budget situation, the alliance wrote, is still fluid, and there’s a chance lawmakers will restore a portion of the budget cuts. Declaring financial exigency too early could jeopardize accreditation and “would send further shock waves to our students, staff, and faculty, and the great community who have come out in support of our universities,” the alliance’s statement said. It would also signal “that we have given up on getting a reasonable budget. This is not wise. The faculty have not given up.”

Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, said the university would be looking to regents for guidance on how to make the inevitable cuts that are coming.

“The elected officials are telling us they want a smaller university, and they have reinforced that even more through the failure to override the veto,” Sandeen said. “We need to face facts now and work diligently to get smaller but still fulfill our mission.”

Despite the time crunch the university is under to make sweeping cuts in a fiscal year that began on July 1, Sandeen said she’s committed to doing so thoughtfully, with input from faculty members and students. She said the Faculty Senate had agreed to meet during the summer to help, and student leaders, who are normally away during the summer, are also eager to be involved.

Across the system, no one is hiring, no one is traveling, and no one is buying anything, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Officials are scrubbing any organizational memberships that cost money. About 2,500 staff members have been sent furlough notices, requiring them to take 10 unpaid days off during the year.

The process for deciding what to cut in the long term will be painful.

University of Alaska officials are starting to gather data on enrollment, revenue generated, work-force need, and other factors, which will help them make tough decisions about which programs to cut.

A budget memo from the governor’s office encouraged the Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses to restructure themselves such that there’s only one School of Arts and Sciences, one School of Engineering, and so on.

A Board of Regents task force has already been examining the possibility of consolidating the system’s three universities into one, at the urging of the Legislature.

During a meeting on Friday, task-force members expressed support for avoiding program duplication by designating “lead campuses” for different disciplines. Skeptics have pointed out that limiting offerings on each campus — even with distance-education options — would make it harder for students to receive a well-rounded education.

A Faculty Senate committee at the University of Alaska Anchorage cautioned regents, in a memo released last week, that consolidating programs in sciences, humanities, and arts risks turning comprehensive universities into “technical or professional schools.”

“These programs are where students engage most deeply in self-reflection and advanced critical thinking, asking questions about what matters, what we can know, and what is fundamental to our existence,”  they wrote.

University leaders have also been talking to the Alaska system’s accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. The commission sent a letter to state lawmakers last week warning of the dire consequences of such a large budget cut.

In an interview, the commission’s president, Sonny Ramaswamy, said that what he doesn’t want to see is “that they get the word from the board that it’s declared financial exigency, and they suddenly start reacting without being deliberate and proactive.”

Universities that are reluctant to lay off tenured faculty members might see their support staff, including tutors, advisers, and remedial instructors, as “low-hanging fruit,” he said, but cutting those positions could set back the progress the university has made in improving retention and graduation rates.

 “Granted, you have to play with the cards you’re dealt,” Ramaswamy said, “but in the end, you have to focus on the students.”

Lawmakers might restore some money for the system.

University leaders are urging students and faculty members not to give up on Alaska quite yet. James R. Johnsen, the system’s president, issued a letter this week after a failed override vote saying the system would work with lawmakers on restoring some of the money in a separate bill.

But he told The Chronicle that he isn’t bullish on that possibility: “Frankly, I’m doubtful that it’s recurring money, and it’s probably not a lot.”

Johnsen wrote in the letter, “We will not have resolution of our funding for some weeks to come. Every day that passes without resolution means deeper cuts later this year, not to mention reduced enrollment and flight of faculty and staff.”

As the Legislature’s special session continues, Johnsen said, lawmakers will first have to resolve “the elephant in the room” — the Permanent Fund Dividend, the annual payouts, funded by oil revenue, to Alaskans. After that, lawmakers might turn to higher-education funding.

Dunleavy has made clear that he doesn’t see the university as a good return on taxpayer investment in its current form. His office’s budget memo argued that the university has “costly and duplicative programs” and employs too many “high-paid executive management staff,” with “low retention and low graduation rates” for students.

Students — especially those in the state’s remote areas — will bear the brunt of the cuts.

The Alaska system has about 26,600 full- and part-time students. It’s located in one of the least-populous states, so it’s a relatively small university system in terms of enrollment. But its three universities, with 16 campuses in all, serve an enormous geographic area, including many locations that would have little to no access to higher education without the university’s presence.

Students will shoulder much of the impact of the cuts. For one, their tuition will probably go up, a lot. And their degree programs might disappear altogether.”

A very sad situation with few good options.


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