FAIRBANKS — Alaska’s hockey teams and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Olympian-producing rifle team could be a casualty of budget cuts.
The University of Alaska released the first set of options to reorganize its academics, athletics and administration Thursday, painting the latest and clearest picture of how budget cuts will affect the state’s higher education system.
There are a few relative bright spots for academics scattered through the options, but the outlook is particularly grim for sports.
Under the three options put forward for athletics, none would result with hockey teams at both UAF and the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The options would either do away with athletics altogether, saving as much as 5 percent of state university funding; consolidate sports into an unprecedented single-campus consortium model that would split up the teams to either UAF or UAA but have them compete under the same campus name; or transition both campuses or just UAA from the NCAA to a lower conference that doesn’t include some of Alaska’s most popular sports.
Under the last option, UAF would replace hockey, rifle, women’s swimming, and men’s and women’s skiing — the campus’ “most supported and successful programs,” according to the report — with men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s golf, and track.
UAA would lose hockey, men’s and women’s skiing, and gymnastics, replacing them with men’s and women’s soccer.
The news was met with shock.
“So does that mean hockey is dead?” was the first question asked by a reporter at an impromptu news conference hosted by Keith Hackett, director of UAA Athletics, and broadcast on Facebook Live.
Hackett, though clearly frustrated by the impact budget cuts handed down by the Legislature will have on athletics, was quick to say that nothing in the report is finalized and actions by the Board of Regents aren’t limited to just those options.
“Everything is on the table, but there is no decision about programs at this time,” he said.
The options were put together for athletics and the engineering, teacher education and management programs, as well as a handful of administrative functions. Each report was put forward by teams of people involved with each program.
The programs are part of the first wave of restructuring under UA President Jim Johnsen’s “Strategic Pathways” initiative to consolidate and eliminate redundancies in the face of stiff cuts from the Legislature.
“There is a lot to think about here with the options presented, but I am particularly pleased that these groups have stepped up, stayed with the charge, and generated not only what I asked them to evaluate, but they have put forward some innovative ideas to realign university resources,” Johnsen said in a statement.
The options as well as Johnsen’s recommendations and public input will be considered by the Alaska Board of Regents at its September meeting in Juneau. In the meantime, forums will be hosted at UAF, UAA and University of Alaska Southeast. The UAF meeting will be held from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Sept. 1 at the Wood Center Ballroom.
UA is grappling with a roughly $25 million cut from last year’s state funding of $350 million, handed down as the Legislature deals with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
The options put forward for the three academic programs included in this round of review look to consolidate or refocus programs at varying degrees. The options range from keeping programs as-is to consolidating program administration to the wholesale elimination of academic offerings at certain campuses.
In general, though, the recommended options trend toward the concept of lead campuses, a central idea to Johnsen’s Strategic Pathways initiative.
For example, UAF’s engineering program would double down on its energy production and energy efficiency work, while UAA would continue working on Arctic engineering. The two would form a shared committee tasked with overseeing potential areas of collaboration between the two universities.
“By embracing two engineering colleges with separate engineering programs and separate administrations maintained at both UAF and UAA, while employing a quantitative focus on enhanced collaboration, course sharing, and efficiency, the Collaborative Alignment approach will maintain momentum, expand enrollment and improve the overall quality of engineering education in Alaska.”
The same model goes for the business and management program, which put forward “A Highly Collaborative Alaska Business School Proposal.”
Under that proposal, UAA would have a broad focus with an in-classroom MBA program, while UAF would focus on Arctic and national security issues and UAS would offer human resource management courses.
The teacher education program didn’t make a recommendation for its options, but also included potential for the campuses to specialize and draw upon local differences for coursework.
Athletics in depth
A 14-member Summit Team of the Strategic Pathways Initiative developed and discussed the three options for athletics during a meeting in the Butrovich Building at UAF.
“It was a really good opportunity for all us — faculty, staff, students, alums and ADs — to be involved in the process,” Gary Gray, UAF athletics director and a member of the Summit Team, said by cellphone Thursday.
“The key to this process that the university system developed was for a broad range of constituencies to weigh in on options,” Gray continued. “Given the state’s budget shortfalls, we were asked to generate options, not recommendations.”
All of the options seem controversial, considering that hockey is a marquee sport at both campuses, and the rifle team has produced many gold medal-winning Olympians, Matt Emmons and Jamie (Beyerle) Gray. Two former UAF students played National Hockey League rosters last season, Chad Johnson for the Buffalo Sabres and Colton Parayko for St. Louis Blues. Former Nanooks defenseman Jordan Hendry (2002-06) was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup champions in 2010.
The Summit Committee’s report states, too, that hockey is UAF’s costliest sport.
During fiscal year 2014, for example, hockey’s expense was $2,149,181.50 and its associated revenue was $670,019.42, bringing the sport to a net cost of $1,479,162.10. The expense in fiscal year 2015 was slightly less, $2,015,333.80 and the associated revenue decreased to $586,294.80. The net cost that fiscal year was $1,429,03.900
If hockey was eliminated at UAF, the university administration would add another men’s sport to meet the NCAA requirement of having at least two team sports for each gender.
One possible replacement is men’s soccer, which is among the sports in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, an 11-school NCAA Division II league which UAF and UAA are members.
UAF, with 10 sports, is Division II in men’s and women’s basketball, women’s swimming, men’s and women’s cross country and women’s volleyball. Its Division I programs are hockey, coed rifle and men’s and women’s Nordic skiing.
The Summit Team’s report includes pros and cons for each option. One pro of soccer is it’s less expensive than hockey.
An estimated initial budget on the report for soccer was $600,000, which also depends on factors such as scholarships (the NCAA maximum for Division II is nine), number of trips (possibly three to five), coaches’ salaries and equipment costs. The net savings for soccer compared to hockey would be more than $800,000.
One downside of soccer, according to the report, is that much of UAF’s corporate sponsorship program is planned around hockey.
“Without hockey, the nature of the UAF program would change dramatically,” the report stated. “Hockey is the athletic program’s key connection to the community; attendance is around 3,000, whereas soccer is apt to attract 200 fans on a given day.”
The consortium option gives each school five sports, and for UAF, they would be hockey, rifle, men’s and women’s Nordic skiing. For UAA, the quintet of athletics would consist of men’s and women’s cross country, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field.
A consortium model, according to the report, would be acceptable to the NCAA and its management Council. A concern is the administration of the consortium and how students from both campuses could possibly participate in a sport one or both campuses if they reside in Fairbanks or Anchorage.
Some members of the UAF cross country team also compete for its Nordic ski program.
Sports editor Danny Martin contributed to this report. Contact him at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter: @NewsminerSports.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.