The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted Tuesday afternoon to move forward with a plan to consolidate the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast into a single accredited institution in a frantic effort to absorb more than $130 million in budget cuts handed down by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
The plan, which will be fleshed out in detail by UA President Jim Johnsen with input from faculty, staff and students over the next month, would consolidate the current three separately accredited universities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau into one single accredited university system with individual colleges for each area of study. This plan would likely consolidate individual administration at each current university such as chancellors and deans.
In summing up the fiscal crisis the university currently finds itself in, Johnsen repeatedly hearkened back to the metaphor of a house fire.
“You need to decide if the house is on fire or whether it’s just the toast burning,” he said. “In my view, the house is on fire.”
Regent Mary K. Hughes piggy-backed off the metaphor in emphasizing the level of uncertainty still remaining. Even after the Legislature passed an appropriation bill Monday that would restore all but $20 million of the cut, the university still may fall prey to the governor’s constitutional line-item veto authority — a power the governor told reporters Monday he may still use.
“Not only is our house on fire, but gasoline is being poured on the fire,” Hughes said.
During the six-hour meeting Tuesday, regents also heard from the chancellors of the three universities as well as from a representative from Dunleavy’s Office of Management and Budget, both who had their own individual ideas on how to proceed.
UAF Chancellor Dan White, UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen and UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield presented a joint plan to regents and the president that would allow each of the three universities to maintain their individual accreditation and core functions but increase cooperation and collaboration between the institutions in an effort to eliminate duplicative administrative functions and increase collaboration among similar programs and colleges.
The regents also heard a presentation from a member of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s cabinet that proposes a step-down approach to state support for the university with stipulations on specific areas that would take the cuts. The plan outlines $85 million 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, of which $20 million 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 UAA athletics, a $792,600 cut 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.
Dunleavy called into the meeting to introduce the plan and explain his rationale before turning the mic over to Mike Barnhill, a policy director with Dunleavy’s Office of Management and Budget.
The governor emphasized the importance of getting the university “focused in a direction that lowers overhead and improves outcomes.”
“One of the areas that we often don’t focus on and haven’t talked about, are the outcomes,” Dunleavy said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any disagreement that many of our outcomes could be a lot better.”
Barnhill, in defending the plan, noted that Fairbanks campus-based research already seeks funding from outside sources.
“The idea is to expand that,” Barnhill said. “That does not seem like a bridge too far.”
Regent Chair John Davies of Fairbanks noted his concern over the plan, adding that it would take years to enact such a shift in funding.
“I am troubled by the reckless suggestion we zero our research funding,” Davies said. “Even if that was an achievable goal, we certainly cannot get there in five years. We are not going to hold bake sales to operate the Sikuliaq.”
Davies took particular issue with a proviso line at the bottom of the proposal stating that “restoration of $38 million into FY2020 budget requires reductions to be confined to identified categories, i.e., overhead reductions may not be taken from nonresearch academic programs.”
Barnhill defended the line noting it perhaps should have been labeled a “concern” rather than “proviso,” emphasizing the document “wasn’t meant to be a dictation.”
The governor’s involvement in a plan moving forward concerned more than just the regents though.
The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the entity responsible for providing and approving accreditation to the University of Alaska, sent a letter to the regents on Monday expressing their concern over the situation and emphasizing that the board’s independence is a vital part of the university’s accreditation.
“In previous correspondence and testimony to Alaska Legislators, I acknowledged that the University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Anchorage, and University of Alaska Southeast have been subjected to a series of budget reductions for most of the last decade,” wrote Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the NWCCU. “Significant additional cuts, reductions, and program closures could pose a material and significant risk to the quality of education provided to the students within those institutions.”
At the end of the day, the board did not take the governor’s plan into consideration but instead voted 8-3 to provide UA President Johnsen the power to implement immediate administrative cost cutting and consolidation measures and to begin compiling a single institution consolidation plan which he will present again to the board in September for their official approval.
Given the concern expressed by the NWCCU, due to the magnitude of the budget cuts the university still currently faces, the institutions’ accreditations could still be at risk.
At the end of the meeting, Davies announced the formation of a subcommittee to act in concert with Johnsen as he formulates a more detailed consolidation and restructuring plan. According to a release from the university, the subcommittee will act as a “sounding board” for Johnsen during the process.
The committee will be chaired by Hughes with members comprised of Regents Karen Perdue, John Bania, Andy Teuber, Cachet Garrett and Dale Anderson.
The Board of Regents will meet again Sept. 12-13 in Juneau to hear Johnsen’s more detailed plan and give the official go-ahead to move forward with further consolidation.
Until then, 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.