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UA President: Governor’s University Funding Cuts Would Spark Exodus of Students, Faculty

Skip Gray/360 North

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen told members of the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed $134 million funding cut would devastate the university’s ability to educate students and conduct research.

Johnsen told the committee that’s reviewing the governor’s proposal that the reductions would further damage the university system, which already has had to absorb a total of $246 million dollars in cuts since 2015.

“The cumulative impact on the University of Alaska would be $380 million, assuming this cut were to occur,” he said.

Johnsen says the university system has dealt with the funding cuts of recent years by reducing its workforce by about a quarter, or nearly 1,300 employees. It’s also raised tuition by about 8 percent over the past five years and reduced classes and programs.

Johnsen told the committee that if Dunleavy’s proposals were to be adopted as is, it could push the university system into a self-perpetuating downward spiral of more layoffs, tuition hikes and cutbacks in classes, programs and research.

“When our budgets are cut, enrollment follows, because we have fewer faculty, fewer courses, fewer programs,” Johnson said. “And if this budget goes into effect, we will have many fewer faculty and staff, many fewer campuses and programs and offerings to provide students.”

“That would encourage both students and faculty to go Outside to learn and teach,” he said. “They will vote with their feet, just as Alaskans have been voting with their feet for the last six years – leaving our state.”

Johnsen’s sobering assessment of the proposed budget’s impact followed a presentation by Dunleavy’s Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin and OMB Policy Director Mike Barnhill. He told the senators that the state government pays for about 40 percent of its university budget – much more than do other states, on a per-student basis.

Credit Skip Gray/360 North
Skip Gray/360 North
Donna Arduin, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Office of Management and Budget director, left, and OMB Policy Director Mike Barnhill testify during Monday's committee meeting.

“The average contribution of states across the country to state-funded universities is just over $7,000 per student,” he said. “The State of Alaska contributes more than double that.”

Barnhill told lawmakers the UA’s state-funding level is the third-highest of all U.S. public universities. And he says other states’ land-grant universities do well with much less state funding.

“Washington State University – 20 percent of their budget is from the state,” he said. “Oregon State University, 16 percent of their budget is from the state. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 13 percent.”

But Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski told Barnhill that he doubted many of the conclusions of his analysis. He says it didn’t adequately account for the high cost of operating campuses around the state, especially those in remote areas, given Alaska’s small population and large size.

“I don’t know that it’s a fair comparison with the other states that you’ve mentioned,” Wielechowski said.

He says Barnhill’s comparison of state funding for the university system also is skewed, because UA doesn’t have access to large endowments and grant opportunities that other public universities do. He asked Johnson what he thought of the overall comparison.

“Do you think that’s a fair argument?” Wielechowski said. “Do you think that’s an apples-to-apples comparison?”

“Senator Wielechowski, I think it’s maybe a pears-to-apples comparison,” Johnsen said.

The other land-grant universities cited by Barnhill were among other things given much more land, relative to the size of the state, he said, adding that the real estate in Alaska that can be sold to raise revenue is of generally lower value.

“Oregon’s land grant was 18 times our land grant, in percentage terms,” Johnsen said. “Washington’s was 100 times (bigger), California was 20 times. And we still haven’t received the land grant we were due under the Morrill Act in 1915, and then later, the Statehood Act.”

Other senators also pushed back at both the assumptions behind the OMB analysis and its impacts. Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman from Bethel says he’s concerned that the governor’s budget places an unfair burden onto students.

“I think that your proposal in balancing this budget is ... on the backs of the students of the University of Alaska system,” Hoffman said.

Fairbanks Republican Sen. Click Bishop said he was especially concerned about the loss of research funding for the university, and for UAF in particular.

“Research isn’t cheap,” Bishop said. “What does this say to potential grantees about investing in research at the University of Alaska?”

“It certainly does not provide a vote of confidence in the university’s ability to conduct world-class research,” Johnsen said. “I think you’re all aware that the University of Alaska Fairbanks is the world’s number-one Arctic research university.”

But Johnsen says UAF could lose that distinction, because many other universities, including the big schools in the Pacific Northwest, are boosting funding for Arctic research.

Correction: This story has been revised to correct the spelling of Mike Barnhill's name.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.