Alaska governor halves ‘severe’ university budget cut

Under pressure, state leader spreads smaller reduction over three years

August 14, 2019

Alaska governor Michael Dunleavy pulled back from six weeks of brinkmanship over the state’s university system by cutting almost in half a threatened $135 million (£112 million) budget reduction and agreeing to spread it out over three years.

The agreement, providing the University of Alaska major relief as it was preparing for widespread firings and consolidations, is part of a broader climbdown by the governor from drastic statewide budget cuts that he announced in late June.

Alaska gives its governor broad authority to slice budgets approved by the legislature. But Mr Dunleavy’s actions, in cutting more than $400 million in state spending to bolster an annual oil revenue dividend payment to Alaska’s residents, prompted widespread protests and an effort to recall him from office.

At a news conference announcing his reversals after weeks of stubborn insistence on the cuts, Mr Dunleavy conceded political reality. “You have to listen to the people your budgets are impacting,” the Republican said.

The original plan for $130 million in cuts, representing 41 per cent of state funding for the 16-campus university system, led the University of Alaska’s board of regents to declare financial exigency, giving it the right to make quick spending cuts, including laying off tenured professors.

The board also voted to move forward with a plan to consolidate the system’s three universities and their 13 community campuses into a single accredited university, with many duplicate programmes facing elimination.

The president of the Alaska system, James Johnsen, had bemoaned the announced single-year cut of 41 per cent as devastating. But he also told Times Higher Education that the university system – with main campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau – was significantly bigger than Alaska’s current population justified, and he admitted that some significant spending reduction over a longer time period could be warranted.

The plan signed by Mr Dunleavy and the chairman of the regents, John Davies, calls for cuts of $25 million in fiscal year 2020, $25 million in 2021, and $20 million in 2022, for a cumulative reduction of about 20 per cent.

The agreement does not require the Alaska system to proceed with plans to consolidate itself into a single accredited institution, though Dr Davies said that option remains his preference.

The smaller budget reduction does, however, mean that some 2,500 UA employees will no longer face a requirement of 10 days of unpaid leave, Dr Davies said.

The $70 million cut over three years remains “a serious reduction”, Dr Johnsen said. The extended timeline would allow the changes to be made “more methodically, with less impact on students”, he said.

Talks between Mr Dunleavy and university officials “began in earnest” after the 30 July regents’ meeting where the board voted to move ahead with the campus consolidation plan, the governor’s office said in a statement.

The sides “met multiple times” to consider alternatives to what the governor’s own statement called his “severe, one-year budget cut anticipated for this year”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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