News-Miner Editorial

Threatening our university: Alaska Constitution’s authors might object to governor’s latest effort

News-Miner opinion: Gov. Mike Dunleavy is clearly trying to shape the University of Alaska to something of his liking, whatever that may be. That fact came into sharp focus with his administration’s proposal to spread his $130 million in vetoed university funds over two years rather than one on the condition that university officials make cuts to specific areas.

That’s not how our system of government in Alaska is supposed to work.

Those who came up with the idea to force specific changes at the university through the use of the budget should take some time to read what the authors of the Alaska Constitution had to say about the relationship between the governor and leaders of the university.

The University of Alaska is not a part of the executive branch of our government and should not be manipulated as such, except through the constitutionally allowable means of a governor’s authority to make appointments to the university board of regents, subject to confirmation by the Legislature.

Gov. Dunleavy’s team is treating the university as if it is a principal department of state government, similar to, say, the Department of Health and Social Services or the Department of Natural Resources.

The governor last week, in his proposal to spread his $130 million reduction of state funds over two years — $85 million in the current fiscal year and the rest next year — wants university officials to agree to several targeted cuts, including reducing research programs by $35 million in state dollars, with $20 million of that coming from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. That’s a 16.87% reduction of all research funds at UAF research, the main research campus.

Cutting state support of research at UA will end programs. That’s because those state dollars are used to acquire federal matching dollars, usually at a high match rate, from the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce, for example. Federally funded research for the Commerce Department should be of particular note for Alaska because that department houses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is working to understand the impact of climate change in our state.

The governor and his team also want the regents to cut $9.2 million this year from UAF and UAA athletics, $1 million from the UA Museum of the North, $792,600 from Fairbanks public radio and TV station KUAC, and $959,600 from the UAA Small Business Development Center.

That’s the executive branch trying to have its way with a university that the Alaska Constitution’s authors viewed as a separate entity, albeit one funded in part by the state government.

In a Jan. 13, 1956, discussion about a governor’s role in choosing the heads of departments and making appointments to boards and commissions, convention delegate Katherine Nordale of Juneau said, “First, I would like to say that the University of Alaska is not a principal department of the government. It is something apart from this.”

Three days later, with attention focused on governance of K-12 education and the university, Ms. Nordale again emphasized the separation between the executive branch and the university.  “I think there should be an article in our Constitution somewhere setting up the University of Alaska, possibly in similar language to that of the University of Hawaii. ‘It is hereby established as a state university and constituted a body corporate ...’ and then it goes on, and that would take care of the university and make it very clear that it can never be dissolved and that it is not part of the executive branch of the government.”

The final product of Ms. Nordale and the 54 other delegates to the convention made it clear who is to run the University of Alaska: the board of regents and the president hired by the board. The Constitution gives the governor no direct role in management of the university.

Article VII Section 3 of the Constitution reads as follows: “The University of Alaska shall be governed by a board of regents. The regents shall be appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by a majority of the members of the Legislature in joint session. The board shall, in accordance with law, formulate policy and appoint the president of the university. He shall be the executive officer of the board.”

How state money given to the university is spent should be left to the regents and the university president. Hold them accountable for how that money is spent? Certainly. Threaten the entire university system to get them to spend it how the governor wants? Absolutely not.

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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