News-Miner opinion: The agreement between Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the University of Alaska Board of Regents staving off an immediate sharp cut in state funding to the university is certainly welcome news. Sort of.
A cascade of harmful actions would have begun had the governor’s desired 41% cut in state funding to the university for the current fiscal year been implemented.
Instead, the governor’s $135 million single-year cut has been reduced to $70 million spread over three years — $25 million in the current fiscal year, $25 million the following year and $20 million in the third year.
The agreement isn’t something to be celebrated, however.
Alaskans need to know that the university will, at the end of the third year of the Dunleavy-UA agreement, have had the state’s contribution to its budget cut by one-third since fiscal 2014. The state provided $378 million to the university system that year; by 2022, eight years later, the state contribution will be, according to the agreement, $257 million.
That’s a big reduction to absorb and is the chief reason that university officials, led by UA President Jim Johnsen, are looking at restructuring the university system into one in which only a single accreditation is needed rather than one for each of the main campuses in Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage.
A single accreditation would cause the elimination of some top-level administrators, probably some instructors and staff, and the consolidation of academic programs, meaning a program would be assigned to one campus, not three. Students living outside of Fairbanks but who want to enroll in a program at the Fairbanks campus would increasingly do so through online participation.
Let’s be clear about this: The University of Alaska is being reshaped because most of Alaska’s leaders for several years now haven’t had the courage to try to raise more money to help pay the cost of providing services to Alaskans.
Former Gov. Bill Walker did propose a tax — as well as budget cuts, a reduced permanent fund dividend, and the use of some of the state’s savings — as a way to reduce the annual budget deficits, but not enough legislators backed him to make it happen. His reasonable proposal cost him re-election.
Gov. Dunleavy refuses to discuss raising additional revenue, so now Alaskans are watching the slow degradation of the university.
Fairbanks residents should be particularly concerned about this erosion, as the university is such a large part of the local economy and entertainment scene. A January report from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development noted the impact: The University of Alaska Fairbanks had lost 700 jobs in the four years preceding the report.
It is important to note here that the agreement between the governor and the Board of Regents isn’t binding.
Things change. Among the most-watched one of those things is the price of oil. If it falls further, will the governor adhere to the agreement or will he break and try to cut the university further still. But what if the price of oil rises sharply? Will the governor be open to increasing funding to the university?
Note also that the agreement doesn’t involve a key third party — the Alaska Legislature.
It is the Legislature that provides money to fund government services, including the university. The Legislature, the body that is intended to represent the will of the people, may very well want to fund the university at a level higher than what the regents’ agreement with the governor calls for. What then will the governor do?
This agreement between Gov. Dunleavy and the Board of Regents should not be viewed as the final word about the university. Rather, it should be seen as quite the opposite. It should be taken as a challenge to Alaskans, a challenge to find a way to provide for a robust University of Alaska that provides a broad and accessible education for all Alaskans who seek it and which continues to be a leading institution in Arctic research in a changing world.