Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s recent vetoes, if not overridden by the Legislature, will have widespread, very negative and long-term effects on the state of Alaska. Even worse, these impacts are completely unnecessary. The Legislature approved a responsible budget that funded critical state programs and services and left approximately $600 million that could be used for permanent fund dividends. While I deplore all of the governor’s recent vetoes, I will focus on the $130 million veto of funding for the University of Alaska’s Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses and for university systemwide services, a 49% reduction to their unrestricted general fund support, because that is my area of expertise. I am a retired UAF administrator, but the opinions expressed here are my own.
As UA President Jim Johnsen and Regent John Davies have said, the UA funding cut would be devastating. Many students would see the academic programs they have been pursuing terminated. While the university is obligated to offer current students a way to complete their programs, in most cases it would not be possible to continue the same quality of program. Many faculty members and their expertise would be lost. Some students would need to take many of their remaining courses online, in some cases from a university in another state. Students could become dissatisfied and leave, causing UA tuition revenue to fall and exacerbating the financial challenges. Research and outreach programs, which currently secure about $150 million per year in external grants and contracts, could decline sharply. Overall, about 1,300 people would lose their jobs in the next few months with minimal notice. To the best of my knowledge, the scale and abruptness of these layoffs are unprecedented for a public university system in the U.S.
The governor has asserted that his veto of part of the UA appropriation demonstrates fiscal responsibility, but it would make little difference to Alaska’s budget. The $130 million is only 3.2% of the remaining general fund appropriation of $4 billion. Further, the governor proposes to spend about $2 billion on a large permanent fund dividend. If the $130 million were subtracted from that proposed PFD distribution, it would be only about 6% smaller, still the largest dividend ever by far.
The governor also cited UA’s high costs to justify his veto, but the UA funding reduction is disproportionate to cuts in other large state expenditures, in areas such as K-12, health care and corrections, which are also much more costly than in other states. I infer that is partly because UA in Anchorage and Fairbanks is a softer target. I think that the community campuses were spared any veto — even though costs per student at some community campuses are quite high — because that narrows the base of legislative and public support for an override.
Why did the governor veto part of the UA appropriation approved by the Legislature? I am not a mind reader, and so I can only speculate. I think there are at least two things that this veto accomplishes for the governor and his supporters on the right of the political spectrum. One is that UA will very likely be forced to slash general fund support of research. UA has excelled at climate and Arctic research. Some prominent conservatives deny the reality of human-caused climate change, and so curtailing UA research is great from their perspective. A second benefit to conservatives is power. Many university faculty and staff are political liberals. Having 1,300 UA employees lose their jobs and move elsewhere, often with like-minded family members, has obvious benefits from the conservative viewpoint. Instead of electing Democrats and moderate Republicans, several districts in Fairbanks and Anchorage might elect more conservative candidates.
The governor’s statement that the UA System can be transformed into a “smaller, leaner, but still very positive, productive university” is very misleading. A comparable “transformation” (actually, a radical downsizing) of a state system of higher education has never been done, especially not in such a short time period. The consequences are hard to predict but are certain to be negative for many students and university employees, as well as the state as a whole, even though UA leaders will do the best that they can to continue to serve students and communities. The university is an important economic engine for Alaska, bringing in federal dollars and educating the workforce. Whatever the governor’s motives, I hope that many Alaskans will join me in urging that the Legislature override his ill-considered veto of UA funding.
Susan M. Henrichs served as a faculty member and administrator at UAF for more than 36 years. She was UAF provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs from 2007 to 2018.