A group of eight former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents sent a letter Sunday to the current board, urging them to oppose Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s attempt to designate which areas of the university will be cut as part of his $135 million budget veto announced in June.
The letter outlines the group’s empathy with the current situation the board faces, but also issues a firm warning against allowing the university, which is constitutionally separated from the executive branch, to be dictated by the governor’s administration.
“We deeply empathize with the exceptionally heavy burden you are bearing at this time,” the letter reads. “As you dedicate yourself to these urgent and pressing matters, we respectfully encourage you to robustly challenge any attempt to usurp the constitutionally-mandated responsibility of the Board of Regents, and ask that you champion the constitutional authority you have been given to make policy and budgetary decisions for the University.”
The letter quoted a number of areas of the Alaska Constitution designating leadership of the university to the board.
“As you know the framers of the Alaska Constitution expressed concerns regarding the appropriate place for the University of Alaska within the constitutional design for the new government. Ultimately, delegates to Alaska’s constitutional convention decided to insulate education from politics, which ultimately led to the university’s constitutional status separate from the executive branch of state government. Your recent declaration of financial exigency recognizes this separation and the imperative to act without regard to political and personal considerations and we applaud you for that,” the letter continues.
“In short, the Alaska Constitution explicitly states that the regents — not the governor nor the Legislature — manage the university and establishes the university as a separate constitutional corporation. Any pressure to allocate an appropriation in accordance with the governor’s wishes, and against the wishes of a majority of the Legislature, exceeds the governor’s appropriation authority and politicizes UA’s budget.”
While the letter did not explicitly reference it, the correspondence was issued just over a week after Dunleavy’s office released a plan that outlined specific areas which the administration would like to see cut, in exchange for a smaller overall reduction this year.
The plan seeks to split the governor’s proposed budget cuts to the university into two years of reductions instead of just one. But the plan would also eliminate state funding for research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks as well as state funding for the UA Museum of the North.
In a one-page document shared with reporters and university officials, the Office of Management and Budget outlines that $85 million is to be cut from UA’s budget this year — rather than the more than $130 million proposed by Dunleavy in June — but only on the condition that the university administer the budget cuts in very specific areas.
One of the more notable stipulations is a $35 million cut to UA research, $20 million of which is to be cut directly from UAF. Another $1 million is to be cut from the UA Museum of the North.
Other targeted cuts for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, include a $9.2 million cut to UAF and University of Alaska Anchorage athletics, a $792,600 to Fairbanks’ public radio and TV station KUAC FM 89.9 and TV 9 and a $959,600 cut to the UAA Small Business Development Center.
The letter sent to regents on Sunday was signed by former regents Deena Bishop, Tim Brady, Fuller Cowell, Jo Heckman, Pat Jacobson, Carl Marrs, Mike Powers and Kirk Wickersham.
Bishop, of Anchorage, who served from 2015-19, was the only of eight former regents who was appointed by a non-Republican governor; former Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent.
Heckman and Powers, both from Fairbanks, were appointed in 2011 by former Gov. Sean Parnell.
Cowell and Wickersham, of Anchorage, were appointed in 2007 by former Gov. Sarah Palin, as was Jacobson, of Kodiak.
Marrs and Brady, both of Anchorage, were appointed in 2005 by former Gov. Frank Murkowski. Brady was reappointed in 2007 by Palin.
After approving last week the idea of consolidating the three separately accredited universities into one single accredited institution, the Board of Regents plans to meet again Sept. 12-13 in Juneau to hear President Jim Johnsen’s more detailed plan for consolidation and give the official go-ahead to move forward with cuts as seen fit.
According to a video statement from Johnsen released Monday, the planning for consolidation is set to begin this week.
Up until their Sept. 12 meeting, the regents will be accepting public comment on the plan. All written testimony can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.