Alaskan regents back consolidation of campuses after cuts

Institution hit by 41 per cent budget reduction pins hopes on reducing administrative and academic duplication

July 31, 2019
View from University of Alaska Fairbanks
Source: Flickr

The University of Alaska’s board of regents has voted to handle a massive 41 per cent cut in state funding by moving toward consolidating the 16-campus system into a single institution with combined accreditation.

The board’s 8-3 decision sets in motion a plan by which savings would be realised by actions that include creating a single school per field across the campuses, and eliminating duplicative administrative functions.

The regents earlier set aside alternatives that included keeping all 16 campuses while spreading the cuts among them, and a proposed “consortium” in which the three main campus clusters that now hold separate accreditations would work more closely together but maintain their identities.

The Alaska system’s president, James Johnsen, backed the proposal that won the board’s approval, saying that aggressively attacking administrative expenses was the best way to help preserve the “student-facing” experience as much as possible.

The system’s budget cut, totalling $136 million (£108 million), is part of a wider contraction of state spending ordered by Alaska’s Republican governor, Michael Dunleavy, in a bid to preserve an annual payment to state residents generated by oil revenues.

Mr Dunleavy imposed the cut at the end of last month, and the state’s legislature failed to amass the three-quarters majority necessary to override it.

State lawmakers tried again on 29 July by approving another budget plan that would trim the annual payment to residents to about $1,600 while reversing most of the $444 million in statewide spending cuts. But Mr Dunleavy, who wants an annual per-resident payment of $3,000, suggested that he would again use his veto power to reject that idea.

Dr Johnsen has acknowledged that his university system has excess capacity relative to the interest in college among Alaska residents. But he said a single-year cut of $135 million was too much, too fast, and would cost the system even more when considering the resulting harm to tuition fee and grant income.

Those warnings are already materialising. The credit rating agency Moody’s responded to the cuts two weeks ago by downgrading the University of Alaska’s credit rating, thereby raising its borrowing costs. Moody’s followed that with an analysis saying any of the choices facing the regents would “be difficult to implement rapidly” given multiple competing constituencies and geographically dispersed campuses.

And the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which currently accredits all three of the main University of Alaska campuses – and through them the other satellite campuses – wrote to the regents warning that the sharp budget cuts could pose a significant risk to the quality of education provided by the system.

“If student success and achievement are demonstrably affected, it could potentially jeopardise the accreditation status of these institutions,” the commission’s president, Sonny Ramaswamy, told the regents. Accreditation is essential for an institution's reputation and its ability to receive federal student aid.

Mr Dunleavy spoke to the regents meeting over the phone, reminding them that he is a graduate of the university system and holds it in high regard.

The three regents who voted against the consolidation plan included the board’s student member, Cachet Garrett, who said both faculty and students were opposed to the idea.

The regents plan to take a final vote on the consolidation in September, after university leaders have had time to further develop its details.

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