FAIRBANKS — Monday brought bad news for the University of Alaska when the Senate rolled out a budget that cuts $22 million from the university and unveiled a plan to plunder the state performance scholarship program.
UA President Jim Johnsen said if enacted, the developments will be disastrous for the university system, which has faced a nearly $75 million cut in funding in the past four years — cutting more than 900 employees and 50 programs across campuses.
The Republican-led Senate also introduced a bill Monday that would empty the Alaska Performance Scholarship fund to provide cover for K-12 cuts and formalized the transfer of funds for the U-Med road project in Anchorage, which would improve access to the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.
All posed concerns for the university, Johnsen said.
“These legislative cuts and the impact they will have on the university are devastating,” he said in a statement.
The Senate operating budget had targeted the University of Alaska system for a $16.3 million cut based on its finance subcommittee recommendations. It cut an additional $5.7 million when the updated version was presented Monday as part of an across-the-board reduction in state jobs, bringing the budget down to $303 million. The UA Board of Regents will decide how the cuts are divvied out.
The regents had requested $341.1 million in state funding. Of that funding, about $325 million was for university operations, $3 million was for fixed cost increases and the remainder was for strategic investments aimed at boosting enrollment and expanding research. Johnsen said at the time that because the strategic investments raised new revenue for the university, they would be prioritized if the Legislature cut the budget.
The House has approved a budget that funded the university at a status quo level of $325 million of state general fund dollars, which means the final figure will be decided in end-of-session negotiations between the two chambers.
In addition to the cuts to the UA budget, the Senate also unveiled a proposal to ax the state scholarship program that provides merit-based scholarships for Alaska’s high school graduates to attend the college or training in Alaska.
Senate leadership said the purpose of the move would be to free the $100 million in the Alaska Performance Scholarship account to ease the $69 million of cuts the Senate would like to make to K-12 schools in the next fiscal year.
More than 14,000 high school graduates have qualified for the scholarship since its creation in 2012, according to a statement by the university, and of those, 5,155 have enrolled at UA.
“The performance scholarship is a great program. It would be a big mistake to scrap it,” Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, said.
According to the university statement, eliminating the scholarship could translate into another $10 million cut to the university budget, highlighting another long-term budget concern created by Senate leadership Monday.
“We believe ending the program would be very detrimental to growing our enrollment, incentivizing young Alaskans to remain in-state for college and then joining Alaska’s workforce,” Johnsen said.
Boosting enrollment is a pillar of a wide-ranging reorganization underway at UA aimed at improving the university system by focusing on the strengths of each campus while scaling back duplicate programs.
The project, known as Strategic Pathways, has been met with resistance from university faculty organizations, prompting votes of no confidence in Johnsen by the faculty senates in Fairbanks and Anchorage. The chief complaint — that the process is going too fast to include people directly affected by the changes — isn’t likely to improve with increased budget pressure.
“We’ve shown lawmakers that we have a plan to gradually reduce our reliance on state general funds,” Johnsen said in the statement. “But we need time to implement that plan and to continue to create the kind of university this state needs. In addition, we are in the midst of making major organizational changes to ensure wide access to affordable and high quality programs for our students.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.