University of Alaska aiming to bounce back from brutal cuts

With the state’s governor imperilled, university bosses are hoping that a better year is on the horizon

March 17, 2020

Nearly a year after taking a massive state funding hit, the University of Alaska system has its eye on an impressive rebound spurred by regrouping at a smaller scale with the apparent support of a chastened governor and a sympathetic legislature.

The system of three main campuses and 13 community college campuses was stunned last summer when the state’s Republican governor, Michael Dunleavy, ordered a 41 per cent cut in its state support.

It fought back, getting Mr Dunleavy to whittle that $135 million (£108 million) reduction to $70 million and spread it over three years, and is now in a months-long process of cutting subjects and staffing to make those numbers work.

“It’s going to be a painful experience,” said James Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska system. “But I think the general sense of the university in the state is positive.”

That shift could reflect the fact that Mr Dunleavy is now fighting for his own political survival. The budget pain he imposed on the university was part of more than $1 billion in cuts he made in government spending statewide. That angered residents enough that they began a process aimed at removing him from office.

Such an environment appears to be making the governor somewhat friendlier to some of his targets, including the university system, for which the state legislature has proposed a slight increase in funding this year.

The change in tone is noticeable, Dr Johnsen said. “The governor has reached out a lot of late and has actually been much more inclusive, calling with ideas and opportunities for cooperation,” he said. “So, I think that things are definitely looking up for us after a very, very painful 2019.”

However, the three main campuses have not been relieved of having to compile lists of majors and faculty to be cut to comply with the $70 million loss of state support still awaiting them. The elimination list in process at the main campus, in Anchorage, includes undergraduate degrees in sociology, graduate degrees in English and several two-year programmes such as aviation and hospitality administration.

The list reflects an attempt to weigh a combination of factors, said Cathy Sandeen, the chancellor of the Anchorage campus, including the unique mix of four-year and two-year formats under the overall UA umbrella, and employer and worker demand for particular fields.

“Every decision is agonising, I will say that,” Dr Sandeen said. “[But] our fundamentals are strong, our faculty are fantastic and there’s a lot still here.”

Adding to the difficulty, Dr Johnsen and Dr Sandeen said, is the looming economic threat from the coronavirus given Alaska’s deep reliance on two heavily affected industries: oil and tourism tied to cruise ships. Dr Johnsen added that the recent budget uncertainty only accelerated UA’s ongoing enrolment declines.

Mr Dunleavy might let lawmakers give the universities more money for now, in his bid to seem friendlier toward them, said Mike Bradner, a former Democratic member and speaker of the state House of Representatives − but it could be a ruse.

“The catch is that if the recall is not successful,” Mr Bradner said, “the governor could react vindictively against a future university appropriation.”

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