University faces hostile legislators

Lawmakers who favor development question faculty, student views

Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2009

The University of Alaska is facing pressure from some Alaska legislators complaining about the political views of its faculty and students.

Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, a member of the powerful House Finance Committee, has grilled Chancellor Mark Hamilton before her committee, and questioned his university's support for the oil and mining industries.

"If I ask university staff, the people who are educating our future leaders, if they support the Chukchi Sea development, the Red Dog Mine or the Pebble Mine or any type of industry along those lines, a stereotypical response is they are in opposition," she said.

At the same time, Fairclough said, they were asking for more money for the university.

"I found it amazing there was a large disconnect in where the dollars for the state of Alaska come from on a regular basis as far as production of oil on the North Slope goes, and how it is turned into revenue for the state of Alaska and in turn is invested in the university system," she said.

Hamilton had to defend his system.

"We probably have the most conservative faculty, and the most conservative student body, you'll ever meet," Hamilton said. "Thank goodness you are not representing Berkeley."

Fairclough continued to question the university system's funding requests.

"How should I advocate more funding for an entire group that doesn't want to see development going forward," she said.

Committee Co-chair Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said Fairclough was not alone in the committee regarding her views.

"I can assure you that Rep. Fairclough is not the only person who has had that experience at this table," he said.

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said some of the students who visit the Capitol looking for money are openly anti-development.

"They come down here and rail against anything that brings in the very bucks that they come down here and tell us that we owe them," he said.

Hamilton urged the committee not to hold some students' views against the entire university system, and said they may well change as they age.

"You can hope, as I do, that these students will mature over time," Hamilton said.

During the meeting, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, strongly disagreed with Fairclough's comments, while Rep. Richard Foster, R-Nome, defended the university's educational efforts.

"I'm real proud of what you do," Foster told Hamilton.

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, later called Fairclough's comments "unfortunate."

"It wasn't encouraging for free speech or open dialogue," he said.

Guttenberg represents some of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks community.

Alex Simon, a professor of sociology at the University of Alaska-Southeast in Juneau, said the legislators' comments were troubling.

"I guess they don't understand the nature of universities," he said.

Universities generally strive to present all viewpoints, and ask unpopular questions that can't be asked elsewhere.

"It sounds like maybe we need to do a better job of educating the public on the role of the academy in society," he said.

Kelly said some in the Legislature were opposed to the university.

"There's somewhat of an anti-university bias somehow in the walls here. I'll call it what it is; I've been here long enough to figure it out," he said.

Kelly urged better training for the students lobbying for more money so as to not raise the ire of his fellow legislators.

Hamilton said he was asked to help fund a Conference of Young Alaskans meeting, and he did so on the condition that they spend an hour studying the economics of the state of Alaska.

"I not only agree with you, but I've demonstrated that agreement," Hamilton said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or e-mail

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