‘Death by a thousand cuts’: University bracing for the worst

Under budget proposal, state funding for university system would decline cumulatively by almost 19 percent

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen speaks during an interview at the Juneau Empire on Wednesday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Students will pay higher tuition. There will be fewer classes and fewer professors. Campus buildings will be shut down, sold or leased.

If the Alaska Senate’s budget plan comes to pass, this is what will happen at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Dale Anderson is Juneau’s delegate to the University of Alaska Board of Regents. Last week, he was called to a special meeting of that board. The meeting was called after the Alaska Senate approved a budget that calls for cutting state support for the university system from $325 million — a figure approved by Gov. Bill Walker and the Alaska House — to $303 million, a drop of $22 million.

The University of Alaska Southeast alone faces a cut of $1.7 million.

“It’s easy to say the cuts that are proposed in the Legislature right now, especially at the Senate level, will be devastating to the effectiveness of the programs that we have,” Anderson said by phone from Seattle. “All the campuses, not just UAS, will really feel the effects of this.”

The Alaska Senate has proposed the cuts as part of its plan to erase Alaska’s $2.8 billion deficit. That plan, if enacted, would have consequences, university administrators say.

Jim Johnsen, President of the University Alaska, called the proposed cuts “devastating” last week in Fairbanks, and he repeated that assessment during a Wednesday visit to the Empire’s offices in Juneau.

UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield, speaking in a separate interview, agreed.

“The president said it. It would be pretty devastating. It goes to the core of what we’re trying to do,” Caulfield said.

If the cuts are confirmed, they would mean a loss of 8-10 staff jobs in Juneau.

One of the university’s associate degree programs might go away, as might its certificate program for automotive technology, Caulfield said.

At its Sitka campus, UAS might be forced to suspend its certificate program in law enforcement.

Caulfield said he would attempt to make the cuts through attrition — simply eliminating unfilled positions — but he might be forced to fire people if the cuts are severe enough.

Caulfield and Johnsen each emphasized that this year’s proposed reduction can’t be viewed in isolation. Cuts since 2014 have had a cumulative effect.

In fiscal year 2015, the state contributed $371 million from its general fund to the university system. That figure has already fallen by more than 12 percent. If this year’s Senate cuts are accepted, the decline will be almost 19 percent.

“For a small institution like we are, it sort of becomes death by a thousand cuts,” Caulfield said.

In addition to the Senate’s direct budget cuts, the Legislature has suspended funding deferred maintenance projects statewide. Much of that money had been going to the university system.

The Senate has also proposed eliminating the Alaska Performance Scholarship program begun under Gov. Sean Parnell, something that might reduce the number of Alaskans who can afford college.

“If these programs were to be eliminated, it would be a triple whammy for the university,” regent John Davies of Fairbanks said in a prepared statement last week.

“It’s a hit not only because of the revenue foregone … I’m concerned about them not going to college at all,” Johnsen added Wednesday.

UAS Vice Chancellor Joe Nelson, who has been involved with the program, called it “one of the most innovative things we’ve had a governor do in a long time.”

“If you unpack these things and if you throw away the Alaska Performance Scholarship, you’re unpacking what’s been a pretty successful combination,” he said. “There’s where I would use the word devastating.”

None of the cuts have been confirmed. The House of Representatives has proposed an alternative idea that includes no cuts to the university system but asks Alaskans for an income tax and cuts to the state subsidy of oil and gas drilling.

If someone has concerns about the proposed cuts, “I would encourage students and their families who are benefiting, to speak up, and employers too,” Caulfield said.

Until the House and Senate agree on a compromise, nothing is certain except uncertainty.

“It’s pretty clear we’re going to be a ball in the air … until those pieces come together at the end,” Johnsen said.

 


 

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 419-7732.

 


 

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