My turn: Tuition hikes for students, perks for administrators

Posted: Monday, October 01, 2007

For years, the University of Alaska's statewide administration has been a source of wonder for those of us who track UA's use of public money: "Statewide" does little to no teaching, has few to no students, yet it spends tens of millions of dollars every year on its well-heeled administrators.

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Last month, Mark Hamilton, UA's Statewide president, and his compliant Board of Regents once again raised tuition on students, marking a whopping 72 percent overall hike just since 2003.

"When these latest increases fully take effect in 2009, it will cost students nearly twice as much to attend the university as it did 10 years before," reported the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, those 10 years approximating Hamilton's tenure with the university.

Incredibly, Hamilton said not raising tuition even more this time constituted his way of "thanking" students. Such a deal. Maybe students should return the favor and propose - by way of a thank you - that the regents take a bite out of his disposable income, starting with trimming his bloated $370,000 salary, plus an array of benefits that include a free million-dollar mansion.

So last month Hamilton raised tuition again. Then he headed to Valdez, where he's bankrolling an annual statewide rural administrator junket. According to the official agenda obtained from Hamilton's office, the final day of this lavish jaunt is reserved for treating these highly paid administrators to a "tour up Thompson pass to Worthington glacier," a "whitewater rafting adventure," and a "driving, shopping, sightseeing tour of Valdez." All but 50 bucks, according to the agenda, is covered by public money that could better be used in the classroom, not extracted, in effect, from the pockets of students.

Associate Professor Abel Bult-Ito scrutinized Statewide's budget a few years ago when he was faculty senate president at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was astounded by how much the bureaucracy had blossomed under Hamilton, a former career military man that UA hired in 1998.

Statewide likes to fudge the numbers, Bult-Ito said, so it's not easy to determine its annual budget. But, at the time, he figured Statewide was spending some $26 million annually. Today he believes Statewide's budget may have ballooned to as much as $35 million or more. Whatever the exact figure, Bult-Ito has no doubt that Statewide's spending has careened out of control.

"Statewide is a bloated, outdated monstrosity that we need to get rid of," he said. "What do they do to benefit students? They have a big general counsel's office that saves administrators' butts, but we should save that $35 million and give our students a better education."

Whether Statewide spends $17 million or $35 million annually, it's difficult to find a single UA student, staff or faculty member credibly defending Statewide's spending these days, particularly after the regents' latest tuition hikes.

Observers like Bult-Ito worry that as our university system confronts rising energy and health care costs, Hamilton will again shake down the average UA employee and student before he will significantly shrink his own Statewide bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, as Hamilton and his fellow administrators decided whether to raft and shop and glacier-gaze in Valdez, the shock of his latest and earlier tuition hikes are reverberating throughout the university.

"I just signed a withdrawal form for a biology major who had to choose between two more classes toward his degree or fixing his car, which he needed for work," said Bult-Ito. "He couldn't afford both."

"The level of needs-based aid that we have compared to other states is almost embarrassing," university spokeswoman Kate Ripley told the Anchorage Daily News in an interview. Yet tuition keeps rising.

I propose that UA's regents commission a bona fide external administrative review of the UA Statewide administration. Perhaps the Rasmuson Foundation can partner with the regents to bring in independent auditors to examine this mess.

It's long past time we put a stop to Hamilton's habit of squeezing our students to fatten his high-flying bureaucrats.

• John Creed is a humanities and journalism professor at Chukchi College, a University of Alaska Kotzebue branch in Northwest Alaska.

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