A new era of cooperation and collaboration is on the horizon for the University of Alaska, according to Interim System President Pat Pitney who held her first solo press conference Tuesday morning after taking the position earlier this summer.
The time for “shooting in” is over, said the former Olympic rifle gold medalist, referring to the squabbling between campuses amid groundbreaking cuts in state funding in recent years.
The funding cuts were handed down by then-recently elected Gov. Mike Dunleavy who came out of the gate swinging with a proposed $135 million cut to university funding in a single fiscal year.
Instead, former UA Regent Chair John Davies signed a compact with Dunleavy to spread a $70 million cut to state funding over three years. Because of the systematic cuts in funding in the years leading up to the compact, at the end of it all the university will have seen a total $120 million cut in base funding over the last eight years.
That kind of downward slope in state support creates a level of uncertainty that only compounds the financial damage the university felt from the cuts, Pitney said. The cuts resulted in slashed faculty positions, cuts to staff and discontinued programs, much of which can’t be made up again. But nevertheless, Pitney said she hopes for a more stable future.
“We will have a smaller footprint, but post-compact what I am striving for is a commitment of stability that the Legislature and the (Dunleavy) administration sees that we’ve sized down and we are less dependent on state general funds but that we go forward with stability,” she said.
Dunleavy defended the cuts to the university as a way to decrease state spending as a whole. But the support that was taken from the university was simply placed elsewhere in the state budget, Pitney explained, falling back on her years of understanding state finance.
The amount of funding cut from the university was added to the Department of Public Safety and Department of Corrections, Pitney pointed out — areas that would not need to be so bolstered if more individuals received education and employment stability, she added.
“Education and higher education are the ones that put people in the economy,” Pitney said. “In terms of weighing investments, the university is a good investment.”
Some of the stopgap measures proposed to address the sweeping cuts included a proposal to consolidate the independent universities in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau into one UA — a plan that has since been trashed — and most recently, a proposal to merge the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Pitney confirmed Tuesday the unpopular UAS merger idea is no longer on the table.
“One of the things that drives enrollment is certainty and because we are heavily dependent on tuition revenue, we need to create certainty for the entire system,” Pitney said, referring to outcry from the UAS community over the idea of a merger.
The things that make a university are its programs, Pitney noted. Moving forward, that will be a priority for her in her new position has interim leader.
“My attention will be on maintaining the highest quality programs we can and looking at how we can operate in a lean and efficient manner administratively to support those programs,” Pitney said.
Pitney likened taking the new job during such a difficult time for the university to drinking from a firehose. Nevertheless, the former state budget director spoke with an air of fiscal expertise and confidence in the university’s future.
“There was an urgency for change and I felt I could help in that change,” Pitney said of her choice to accept the position of interim president. “And I feel everyone in this institution needs to be part of the solution.”
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.