The University of Alaska Board of Regents’ decision to suspend work on restructuring the university makes sense for various reasons. Most importantly, long-range planning is impossible right now, primarily because of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s ongoing blackmail of the UA system. But the University of Alaska Anchorage Faculty Senate has exacerbated the crisis with a Dunleavy-like campaign of half-truths and goofy proposals that have made the way forward more difficult.
The immediate crisis began with Dunleavy’s arbitrary decision on June 28, three days before the new fiscal year, to cut $130 million (about 40%) from the UA state budget, leaving not enough funds to keep the doors open past February 2020 unless thousands of employees were immediately fired. When the recall movement forced Dunleavy to back down from his absurd doomsday budget, Gov. Big and Tall stole a page from the Corleone family and made UA an offer it could not refuse: take the immediate $130 million hit of June 28 or $70 million over three years.
This unrefusable “compromise” was like being asked to be kneecapped in one leg or two. And the regents are still in an impossible situation, with nothing to stop Dunleavy from chopping $100 million or more from the university’s budget next year. UA is No. 1 on his hit list. No other agency has been forward-defunded or taken a cut of this magnitude, and no constitutional or legal basis exists for this arrangement. The absurdity caught national attention. Forbes summarized the blackmail farce with a headline for the ages: “The University Of Alaska Avoids The Worst As Governor Shows How Not To Govern.”
In the midst of Dunleavy’s reign of error the UAA Faculty Senate picked the occasion to settle scores with UA Statewide, particularly President Jim Johnsen, who was pushing a restructuring plan under a directive the state House had passed by a 2-1 ratio to “consider a plan to transition the University of Alaska from three separately accredited academic institutions into a single accredited institution with multiple community campuses.”
Consolidating the university has always been popular with the public, despite widespread opposition from administrators and faculty, especially at UAA, where they complain that measured by student credit hours — and ignoring all other data — they are underfunded to the benefit of UAF. Anchorage faculty somehow decided the main threat to their jobs was not Dunleavy’s 40% cut, but UA consolidation plans and the system itself. A blogger observed that while the Anchorage faculty furor might ostensibly be about leadership and accreditation, the real cause was “the festering, long-standing rivalry between the Anchorage and Fairbanks campus over funding and campus prestige.”
Stricken by Fairbanks-envy, UAA’s faculty senators produced a bizarre report recommending elimination of the Board of Regents and the entire UA system, requiring a constitutional amendment no less, and creating three new boards of regents and three new competing public universities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, enabling the Legislature to decide each session where the money goes. The assumption is that this way Anchorage faculty will finally get its fair share of legislative loot! This triple payday will also allow three medical schools, three dental schools, three vet schools, three law schools, etc. etc. etc. What could go wrong-wrong-wrong?
The Anchorage faculty also decided the 40% cut was fine if it all came from Fairbanks. Skeptics might say the UAA faculty’s recommendation to cut UAF by 78% and UAA by 0% was a blatantly opportunistic and callous move designed to save their own hides, but the UAA folks claim it was both justified and righteous. Move over Mother Teresa. Greater love than this no tenured professor has than to lay down his laptop for his friends and say, “Don’t fire me or my friends, fire four out of five in Fairbanks!”
The cut-out-Fairbanks crusade by the Anchorage faculty — which, according to a careful analysis, is based on a string of faulty assumptions and misinformation — is less Mother Teresa and more Mr. Whitekeys: “We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you!” And these are the people who voted no confidence in the leadership of President Johnsen and, naturally, recommended he, too, be fired?
Fortunately for the state of Alaska, the faculty do not run the University of Alaska. Faculty have a vital role to play; however, shared governance becomes harder to justify when the actions of faculty representatives demonstrate no sense of true responsibility for all of the university’s stakeholders, no matter where they might live, work or study. Alaska and its university deserve better.
Terrence Cole is an emeritus professor of history who taught for 30 years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.