40 Below Club

From left: Dylan, Gracie Mae, Jeff, and Tyler Skaggs join the 40 Below Club at the time and temperature sign on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Photo courtesy of Jeff Skaggs

FAIRBANKS—The University of Alaska Board of Regents met Thursday and Friday in Anchorage to discuss possible options to handle what could be the university's largest budget cut in history and will make a final decision about the system's future in early April.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy last month released his proposed fiscal 2020 operating budget, which included a 41 percent budget cut for the university. State funding to the university system would fall to $193 million.

"The board reviewed five broad options for moving forward, which included elimination of whole programs and consolidation of administrative functions, community campuses, and other academic and administrative programs and services," according to a university news release that recapped the meeting.

Regents directed the administration to conduct the expedited program review and will make a final decision on April 8, the news release stated.

Over the past four years, the university has seen a cumulative budget cut of approximately $195 million.

During that period, UA President Jim Johnsen implemented a cost mitigation plan called Strategic Pathways, which consolidated programs and was designed to streamline university operations. The plan resulted in program cuts and the elimination of approximately 1,200 faculty and staff jobs.

“The university has worked hard at expense reduction, diversifying revenues, expanding private partnerships and reducing its facility footprint," Johnsen during a presentation to regents. "This proposed additional cut is simply not a manageable cut. The university is limited in its ability to respond to this dramatic and sudden budget cut by accreditation standards, long-term program commitments to our students, and the state’s poor economic conditions."

Johnsen said he hopes the university can convince the Legislature to revised the governor's budget.

“We will work with legislators and the governor for a sustainable funding model, and engage Alaskans who support a positive vision for Alaska to communicate with state leaders about UA’s importance to Alaska’s economy and its future," he said.

Board of Regents Chairman John Davies of Fairbanks noted that Dunleavy's proposed budget cut is larger than any in the university's 100-year history.

"It's virtually unprecedented," Davies said in a telephone interview Friday.

The board and university administration are currently "planning for the worst but hoping for the best", Davies said.

"We're hoping we can convince them that this level of cut is counterproductive to virtually everybody's goals for the state," he said.

Davies clarified that there weren't numbers or specific cost-saving estimates attached to any of the options that Johnsen presented to the board. Instead, Davies said, the options were examples of the kind of actions the university might have to consider at various funding levels.

"Closing a whole campus was one example. Going back to a single university was another," he said.

Each of these options provide a host of possible complications, however.

"The idea of becoming one university again has some appeals and money to be saved, but a lot of complications, not the least of which is that right now the three universities are separately accredited," Davies said. "If we wanted to make the switch back, it's not clear how quickly we could do that, even if it's something we decided to do."

"If we have to eliminate certain courses, there are teach-out requirements," Davies said, noting that even when programs are discontinued, students who are already part of a program must be allowed to complete their degrees.

Laying off staff and faculty has the potential of violating existing labor contracts.

"We want to honor our contracts and there is a certain notice period required," Davies said. "We don't know how many faculty or staff might be affected until we know what the plan is, but we don't know what the place is until we get the budget."

In addition to discussing the budget, regents directed Johnsen and the rest of the university administration, including chancellors, to quickly review all of UAA’s education programs and report the findings to the board at the next meeting, scheduled for April 8.

The issue of UAA's loss of accreditation for its education program has been a contentious topic as university officials discuss how to support students who will have to move campuses to complete their degree.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.