FAIRBANKS — University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen, in a Tuesday presentation to the Senate Finance Committee, outlined possible catastrophic results for the university if the Legislature passes Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget cut of $134 million.
“There is not a great state economy without a strong university. Period. End of report,” Johnsen said during the meeting. “We’ve been here for 100 years. We will be here in 100 years. Will we be strong or not is the question.”
Johnsen outlined budget declines over past years, enrollment declines and program and staff and faculty cuts as a result of lower funding, noting that if Dunleavy’s budget cut goes through, the university would be looking at a cumulative loss of $380 million since fiscal 2014.
“Over this period of time, the university reduced people, not just vacant positions, but reduced 1,283 employees,” Johnsen said. “When our budgets are cut, enrollment follows, because we have fewer faculty, fewer courses, fewer programs. And if this budget goes into effect, we will have many fewer faculty and staff, many fewer campuses and programs and offerings to provide students.”
Johnsen was clear that he believes students will not attend a university that will be hurt so badly.
“They will vote with their feet just as Alaskans have been voting with their feet for the last six years: leaving our state,” he said.
Johnsen brought up the subject of research money provided to the state through the university and was supported in questioning by Fairbanks Republican Sen. Click Bishop, who sits on the committee.
“As we all look at trying to find efficiencies in government, and both the administration and myself and everybody at the table I’m assuming, wants to grow the economy and we are a research university,” Bishop said. “With the proposed budget that we have, and we know research isn’t cheap, what does this say to potential grantees about investing in research at the University of Alaska?”
Johnsen responded: “It certainly does not provide a vote of confidence in the university’s ability to conduct world-class research.”
In other issues, Sen. Natasha Von Imhoff, R-Anchorage, emphasized what she saw as the need for campuses to work together more.
“There should be more collaboration and cooperation between the campuses, not silos.” Von Imhoff said.
Prior to Johnsen’s presentation, the committee heard from Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin and Policy Director Mike Barnhill.
Barnhill outlined part of the process the office went through prior to making the budget proposal, which included comparing the level of state funding for universities across the country. Barnhill said based on this comparison, they concluded that Alaska is spending too much.
“What we learned in this comparison is that the state of Alaska contributes substantially higher percentage of funds to the University of Alaska than most other states,” Barnhill said, citing the University of Washington and Oregon State University. “There are some extremely fine land grant universities in this country that exist and thrive with much smaller percentages of state support.”
Following that comparison, Barnhill said the office broke down which elements of the statewide university system were most costly and which were most financially efficient, noting that the University of Alaska Fairbanks is the most expensive element and UAF’s Community and Technical College is one of the most cost-effective elements.
Barnhill did not discuss the difference in size, employment, programs or students served between by the two campuses.
When asked by Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, whether he believed that the comparison of the University of Alaska to universities out of state was an “apples to apples comparison,” Johnsen said it was closer to a “pears to apples” comparison, noting the vast differences in cost of living and geographic distance in Alaska.
The University of Alaska has 13 rural and community campuses in addition to three major campuses in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau.
In a recent meeting with reporters, Johnsen noted that if these budget cuts go through, the university would likely have to close campuses.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.