News-Miner opinion: To say that the University of Alaska presently finds itself in an unprecedented situation — a troubled financial situation and the sudden resignation of its leader — would be an overstatement.
The university has survived previous turmoil and it will survive again.
Nevertheless, the June 22 resignation of UA President Jim Johnsen is a tremendous loss to the university at a difficult moment. President Johnsen took over the system during the state’s accelerating financial troubles, finding himself making repeated pleas to elected officials to adequately fund the university.
Would things have been different if the upheaval caused by the university’s financial problems, which have flowed down from the state government’s own troubles, were less severe? Perhaps.
One obvious way to ease the financial pressure is to lessen the university’s reliance on the state government. And one notable way to do that is to grant the university all of the land that it is entitled to as a land grant university.
The University of Alaska is woefully deficient in the amount of land it should own and is therefore deficient in the amount of money it can raise from that land.
An April 2019 report by the University of Alaska Office of Land Management chronicles the century-long difficulty the university has had in acquiring the public lands it was authorized to have under long-ago federal laws for the purposes of producing revenue. Statehood in 1959 complicated the matter. The university argues it is still owed 360,000 acres under its federal entitlement.
Such land grant universities exist now in all 50 states, but Alaska ranks near dead last in land grant acreage among the states.
The report makes a blunt statement of the impact:
“... a series of historical circumstances have deprived UA of most of the actual land grants originally intended for it, with the ironic result that, despite the vast areas of land within the State of Alaska, UA has been crippled, historically and presently, by the paucity of lands from which it can generate its own revenues. The largest state in the U.S. has received a smaller land grant for higher education than any other state except Delaware (90,000 acres) and Hawaii (which received no federal land at all, but did get a large monetary grant in-lieu of land).”
The university owns about 150,000 acres of land, most of it from federal grants. Of that, about 12,000 is for education uses, including the campuses; the rest exists to raise revenue.
That’s not a lot of land with which to make money.
Numerous efforts in the Alaska Legislature and in Congress since the 1990s have attempted to rectify the university’s extreme land grant shortage. Efforts in Congress have failed. An effort in the Legislature succeeded in 2000, granting the university 250,000 acres, with revenue from the eventual sale, lease or development of the land going into the university’s Land Grant Endowment Trust Fund. But it wasn’t to last: A 2009 ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court invalidated the 2000 land grant, stating it violated the Alaska Constitution’s prohibition on the dedication of revenue to a specific purpose. So the land reverted to the state.
Revenue derived from the university’s federal land grants, by the way, isn’t subject the Alaska Constitution’s prohibition on the dedication of funds for a specific purpose.
Simply put, the University of Alaska needs the federal land it is entitled to and could benefit from a state land grant if a constitutionally sound way can be found to provide it. The university obviously needs the money it could raise from having more land.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a meeting with the Daily News-Miner editorial board two weeks before winning election in 2018, supported the idea of increased land to the university. “If we want these programs, we have to be able to produce revenue to support these programs,” he said then. “And if we have land that we can monetize, that has minerals on it, timber on it, you name it, we should be able to do that. That was the purpose of the land, especially for things like the university and the Mental Health Trust Fund.”
Acquiring more land is something that the next president of the University of Alaska needs to pursue aggressively and that Alaska’s members of Congress, the Alaska Legislature and Governor Dunleavy need to assist with.
The 2019 report by the Office of Land Management concludes with the following words: “UA will continue to hammer away at this problem until its land grant is commensurate with the scope of the dreams and duties Alaskans want their University to achieve.”
Let’s hope so.