Alaska colleges face massive budget cuts

The aviation program at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Community & Technical College. (Photos: UAA)

Higher education leaders in Alaska are working to convince legislators to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal to slash the state’s higher education budget. The cuts would devastate community college programs, as well as four-year and graduate institutions.

Dunleavy used a line-item veto to drop $130 million from the state’s public universities. That’s on top of a $5 million decrease approved earlier by the legislature. Taken together, that amounts to a 41 percent reduction from last year.

Overriding the veto requires the approval of 45 of the state’s 60 legislators, which is considered unlikely. An effort to override the veto on July 10 failed; the deadline is midnight on July 12.

Hundreds of layoffs

University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Chancellor Cathy Sandeen warned the budget cuts could lead to about 700 layoffs and the elimination of about 40 of its 105 degree programs, resulting in the loss of at least 3,000 students.

“A cut that large to the UA system would affect all of our campuses to some degree,” she said.

Associate degree and technical education programs, referred to as community campuses, are embedded in the state’s public universities. Within UAA, for example, the Community & Technical College functions as a program of the university, much like UAA’s college of business or engineering, rather than as a separate institution.

“The governor’s veto message last Friday hit UA hard,” said Jim Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska system. “We will need to take steps immediately to advocate for a legislative override of the veto, cut unnecessary expenses, and begin planning for the possibility that override of the governor’s veto does not succeed.”

In the meantime, Johnsen said UA will take immediate steps to reduce costs by restricting travel, hiring and procurement. Earlier this week, Johnsen directed about 2,500 UA staff members to take 10 days of unpaid leave during the current fiscal year, unless the veto is overturned.

A press release from the governor’s office on the line-item veto says the $130-million cut to the UA system impacts primarily the Anchorage and Fairbanks universities, while funding for all 15 community campuses, which house associate degree and certificate programs, “remains intact.” But it’s more complicated, Sandeen told the Anchorage Daily News, as the campuses are too interwoven and share too many services and costs to silo the funding cuts.

Even if workforce programs aren’t eliminated, community campuses would be hurt, as “we have a shared services model,” said Gary Turner, director/CEO of Kenai Peninsula College, which is part of UAA. The university provides assistance with human resources, information technology, risk management and legal services, so “if there are cuts to the statewide system, we would have to pick up those costs.”

It’s too soon to tell whether the veto stands, and if it does, what the impact will be, Turner said. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Campuses could close

With the UAA system facing a nearly 50 percent budget cut, “a lot of things are going to go,” Turner said. “Campuses will be closed; there is no doubt.”

The UAA president and Board of Regents will decide what to cut. If campuses are closed, it’s likely that smallest ones would be targeted, such as community and technical campuses in remote rural areas, Sandeen said. If that happens, a possible alternative could be online programs or partnerships with a high school for hands-on workforce instruction.

The automotive technology program at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Community & Technical College.

“Community campuses in Alaska are really important not only for the education they provide, but they also serve as the cultural hub for many communities,” Sandeen noted. “When our elected officials make decisions on budgets, they don’t see all the downsteam consequences.”

According to Dunleavy, a Republican, the cuts are needed to reduce the state’s budget deficit without imposing new taxes or reducing Alaskans’ “permanent fund dividend” from the state’s natural resources, which are owned by the public.

In a letter urging Alaska Senate President Cathy Giessel and Alaska Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon to override the governor’s budget veto, American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell called the cuts “virtually unprecedented.”

“Gutting the state’s universities is a step in the wrong direction that would trigger a series of damaging long-term after-shocks to the state’s social fabric and economic future,” Mitchell warned.

If the attempt to override the veto fails, the UA Board of Regents at its July 15 meeting could declare a “financial exigency,” meaning the system could dismiss tenured faculty.

Meanwhile, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities warned in a letter to state lawmakers that failure to properly fund higher education institutions in Alaska “could have disastrous effects, including the potential loss of accreditation, that could be felt for generations.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.