The University of Alaska faces an impossible choice.
One option is to follow through and implement the governor’s line item veto and start looking for millions of dollars in budget cuts.
The second option is to wait. And hope the legislature comes up with an alternative to the destruction of higher education in the state.
On Monday the board of regents voted to postpone a declaration of a “financial exigency” that would have allowed administrators to act quickly to lay off tenured faculty and completely eliminate academic programs.
The university system is struggling to find a way to handle a budget cut that is more than four out of every ten dollars, or 41 percent of the university’s budget. Last week thousands of Alaskans turned out for rallies and sent emails urging legislators to override the governor’s vetos. But the three-fourths majority needed for override didn’t materialize.
The University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen told regents he feels caught between a hard place and rocks on every side because the governor’s cuts are “staggering" and “unprecedented.” These latest reductions follow some $379 million in cuts since 2014, roughly half its budget.
Because the latest cuts apply to the fiscal year that already began on July 1, Johnsen said swift action is essential.
“Every day we delay making reductions will compound the amount of cuts we will need to make later,” he said.
The budget cuts are bad enough but staff also expect to see a drop in other revenues.
Enrollment is expected to decline resulting in less tuition revenue.
The uncertainty may put tens of millions of dollars in research grants and contracts and philanthropic donations in jeopardy as agencies and foundations wait to see how the cuts are handled. Administrators estimate total losses may top $200 million.
However several regents cling to the hope that legislators will restore some or all of the funds vetoed by the governor.
If they do, though, Johnsen said based on his meeting the governor last Friday, he would expect another gubernatorial veto. “He was feeling pretty strong. He'd vetoed us $136 million, and he won last week. He was feeling pretty confident…. he comes from a position of substantial strength.”
Moreover, administrators cautioned regents, it may take months for that political process to wrap up, pushing up against the need to reduce spending earlier than later.
Regent Andy Teuber, Sugpiaq Alutiiq of Kodiak, made the motion to postpone action, saying he agrees with regents who warned against being too hasty. “I think that the monumental significance of the issues before us warrants a meeting where the regents could convene together in one room.” Regents also added an in-person meeting on July 22 to their scheduled July 30 meeting.
Faculty Alliance chair Dr. Maria Williams, Tlingit, a UA Anchorage professor of Native Studies, said she was relieved by the regent’s decision. If legislators restore the funding, the declaration would be moot, and if a declaration were made, she said, “Alarm bells would go off signaling we’re giving up and in panic mode.”
Williams said that would send a shudder through the ranks of UA supporters, and could prompt hasty decisions that will further undermine confidence.
Confidence is already wobbling, according to Robert Michael, Athabascan, who said the cuts to the university budget are worrying his friends. Michael, who is taking a break after his first year at UA-Anchorage, said students think the budget cuts are going to lead to tuition increases. Some figure they can get a more affordable education elsewhere.
"It hurts a lot of students,” said Michael. “I been seeing a lot of stuff all over social media, seeing lots of people leaving to go to other universities. It’s a big loss to Alaska.”
Administrators say they will maintain courses promised for the Fall semester. Delaney Thiele, Yup’ik and Athabascan, is worried they won’t offer courses in her major, political science, in the Spring. She doesn’t want to try and cram the six or eight classes she needs to graduate into the Fall semester.
“I don’t feel like I want to rush,” she said. “I want to do the full year. I’m mostly worried about the faculty, who I’ve become really good friends with and have a lot of respect for. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”
She doesn’t see transferring to another campus as a viable option.
“I don’t think I would move to finish in my major. I hope something will be worked out so political sciences won’t be cut, but there will be other programs that will be cut. So, it’s just a lot of overwhelming emotions.”
The specter of the collapse of the entire university system looms over regent, faculty, and administration discussions.
Williams said she’s worried the university may never recover if legislators fail to override another round of vetos, leaving the governor’s cuts in place.
“If that stands, I fear we will lose accreditation. They will have to lop off so many programs. Once you start lopping off academic programs and the students are not able to graduate, then game over. Game over. You got nothing.”
“You get no more financial aid,” continued Williams. “Who’s going to go to a school where their degree maybe isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on? And what faculty wants to teach at an un-accredited institution? Getting accreditation back would take years, and cost a lot of money.”
The board of regents will review options July 22. Regents plan on voting for specific changes and spending cuts at a July 30 meeting.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a longtime Alaska journalist.