Drastic Alaska cuts upheld, raising worries for US public HE

State’s budget crisis seen as highlighting growing doubts about lawmakers’ confidence in the value of knowledge

July 15, 2019
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The University of Alaska faces an immediate 41 per cent funding cut across its 16-campus system after the state legislature failed to overturn the governor’s budget plan, raising concerns about confidence in public higher education elsewhere in the US.

Alaska’s Republican governor, Michael J. Dunleavy, announced the $136 million (£108 million) reduction at the end of last month, and the state’s legislature failed to muster the three-fourths majority necessary to override it in a vote on 12 July.

At a meeting on 15 July, the university’s Board of Regents was set to consider potential responses that include shutting campuses, firing hundreds of staff, consolidating programmes in single locations, and contracting from three separately accredited universities to one.

One immediate step, a declaration of “financial exigency”, would give the university legal authority to quickly shut programmes and remove tenured faculty.

The University of Alaska System president, James R. Johnsen, said he believes there’s little other choice. “Financial exigency is an action I never anticipated that this great university or its regents would need to take,” Dr Johnsen said in a statement. “But every day we delay increases the size of the cuts required.”

The Alaska crisis comes as dwindling state support for public higher education across the US has been recovering somewhat over the past several years. But states reliant on natural resources are more vulnerable to wider swings.

Alaska’s situation is even more unique because the state uses its oil revenues to pay its residents, and Mr Dunleavy ordered deep cuts across throughout the state budget to maintain and boost those payments. That means, say some experts, that the huge cut facing Alaska’s universities and its 26,600 full- and part-time students is a clear statement of the cultural values now seen in wide swathes of the US.

Ambivalence about the economic value of knowledge unfortunately remains common in much of the US West, said Christopher Newfield, a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

A few exceptions, such as the San Francisco and Seattle areas, have made the necessary transition and are doing well, Professor Newfield said. “The ones that couldn’t cross over are struggling more than ever,” he said.

Alaska’s situation is so severe, said Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University, as to raise the question of whether education should be treated nationally as a basic right, which the people of a particular state should not have the ability to effectively eliminate.

“Is there a point”, he said, “where somebody wants to say, ‘Look that’s not right, that doesn't serve anybody’s interests, including your own’?”

Mr Dunleavy sees himself as more hard-headed. He has argued that the state university system has too many highly paid administrators, too many duplicated programmes, and too few successful student outcomes. The system’s per-student spending of $16,300 is more than twice the national average of $7,600, and the cut will still leave it around $11,000, his office said.

The governor has suggested solutions that include providing more classes over the internet, and sending many current University of Alaska students to other online institutions.

Dr Johnsen agrees that his system has too much capacity and laments the lack of interest in college among Alaskans. But he has argued that the suddenness of the budget cuts is fundamentally harmful to the institution. The $135 million cut will actually cost the system something closer to $200 million when counting the downward effects on tuition and grant income, he said.

The system hopes to delay any major academic effects until the spring semester, Dr Johnsen said. But it already has suspended new hiring and travel, and ordered 2,500 staff to take 10 days of unpaid leave. Lost jobs attributable to the cuts could eventually exceed 1,000, he said.

The University of Alaska System’s Faculty Alliance has pleaded with the Board of Regents not to declare financial exigency, saying that would further weaken confidence in the institution. The faculty body also held out hope that state lawmakers – despite spending the past week considering the matter – might yet reconsider the budget cuts.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Drastic Alaska cuts raise worries for US public HE

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