The president of the University of Alaska today told lawmakers a $15 million funding increase last year turned the school around.
In his annual State of the University address, Mark Hamilton told the House and Senate Finance Committees the Legislature's willingness to appropriate the extra state dollars prompted more corporations to donate and more students to enroll.
"What has happened here is ... this body made a vote of confidence in the university. It rippled throughout this state. That's why the students came. That's why people are giving and people like to join a winner," Hamilton told a packed committee room.
Lawmakers granted the increase last year with the expectation Hamilton later would show that the money made a difference. The Legislature, among other things, wants to see evidence of increased enrollment and more graduates meeting the state's employment demands.
Hamilton said enrollment has climbed for the first time since 1994. He also said the university is using some of the extra state dollars to develop and expand programs in the fields of teacher education, information technology, health care, natural resources and engineering areas in which the state has experienced a worker shortage.
He pressed lawmakers to appropriate another funding increase this year, saying the university will play an important role in training the work force for "promising economic opportunities on the horizon," including construction of a pipeline to tap Alaska's vast natural gas reserves.
He said Alaska may be faced with an era of development not witnessed since the 1800s "when we pushed the railroads west." The way to have economic development but control growth is to train Alaskans for key jobs, Hamilton said.
"If you make this university strong, your university will make you rich," he said.
Gov. Tony Knowles has requested nearly $17 million in extra funding for the university this year. Sen. Dave Donley, cochairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said it's too soon to tell whether the Legislature will steer that much additional money to the school.
"In the past, the university has had some serious problems with accountability, and president Hamilton has represented to us he's going to fix those problems," said Donley, an Anchorage Republican. "Now we have to begin a process of assessments to see if he's been successful in making those necessary changes to improve the operation of the university."
Sen. Pete Kelly, the other cochairman of the committee, speculated lawmakers will support increased funding for the university this year, saying he couldn't put a dollar figure on it but it probably would be "a sizable amount."
Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, echoed Hamilton's comments that the state will depend on the university to train a work force capable of building the proposed North Slope natural gas line, if the project gets a green light.
"A lot of the people that worked as welders and in the technical jobs on the North Slope are now at the age they're retiring or even if they're not retiring they don't have any great desire to be standing outside in 50-below, running a bead on a piece of steel pipe. So the university is going to be very critical to that," Kelly said.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.