Contrasting themes of vibrancy and chaos highlighted the first day of the University of Alaska Board of Regents’ first meeting in Juneau since 2018, with leaders speaking optimistically about student enrollment rebounding from COVID-19 lows the past two years while clashing with each other about a year-long standoff in union facility employee negotiations.
“It’s great to see you all in person,” said Sheri Buretta, the board’s chair, at the start of the two-day meeting. “It feels back to normal, which is wonderful.”
But abnormalities were also highly visible, most notably about a dozen union faculty members in the audience section holding up protest signs about an ongoing contract negotiation stalemate that dominated the background of the meeting’s livestream.
Also, while campus life in many ways was portrayed as returning to pre-pandemic normal, issues related to the virus (including a University of Alaska Southeast mask mandate now scheduled to be lifted Monday) remained a persistent and sometimes controversial element to many of the day’s agenda items that included future budgeting, policy goals and coping with staffing and inflation woes.
Among those offering an upbeat tone was Michael Ciri, the university’s vice chancellor of administration, who said “the theme for the report today is excitement” when it comes to enrollment.
“Two months ago when we built our budget we had our enrollment assumption at 3% down,” he said, adding even that seemed optimistic. But now it appears enrollment will be about the same as last year, due to a significant increase in newly enrolled students.
“Overall they are up 9%,” Ciri said. “First-time freshmen are up 12%, transfers are up 15%.”
The latter appear to be mostly out-of-state students resulting from an aggressive outreach program, he said.
Signs of that vibrancy are seen at the UAS campus where “housing is fuller than it has been in two years,” said Calvin Zuelow, a student government senate representative.
“It feels like the community is more active,” Zuelow said. “I feel more energy on campus. I feel good. I’m hearing good reports from the coalition.”
But a starkly different mood exists among those teaching the students, said Dawn Humenik, chair of the university’s Staff Alliance. She said a members’ retreat earlier this week shows there are clear problems beyond COVID-19 setbacks from recent years, notably budget cuts and resulting increased workloads.
“Staff are acutely aware that there have been challenges with stability, finances, and morale,” she said. “Relationships and trust were damaged.”
Buretta responded by noting the board has endured “a rollercoaster of challenges” during the past eight years, while board member Karen Perdue said the combination of pandemic and budget troubles means “I think we as a board have to be mindful if we feel that things are normal.”
“It takes a whole lot longer for the system and students to get back into the structure of governance, for staff to anticipate what is normal and will happen as our new normal,” she said. “I think our budget cuts are continuing. We have some that are still rippling into the system. It is important that you remind us that there’s a long tail on the changes. It will be a long time for whatever the stability looks like to happen.”
Some of that stability appears as if it will occur in the budget for the coming year after significant reductions during Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s first term, said Neil Steininger, director of the state Office of Management and Budget. With the governor entering the final two months of his reelection campaign, Steininger told the board of regents high oil prices means “we are able to look at guidance a little differently.”
“For the first time in quite a while we are not asking for significant large dollar value reductions,” Steininger said. “We are looking at what we can do with the current money we have. We know the high price of oil won’t be here forever…We have tasked agencies to prioritize current levels of funding to find a way for a net-zero budget to be put together.”
The administration also hopes to use short-term surpluses for high-priority projects such as workforce development, he said.
A challenge to that relatively rosy projection was voiced by Gökhan Karahan, a member of the regents’ board and faculty alliance, who asked “if the governor gets reelected will he commit to not cutting budgets when oil prices are going down?”
“I’m going to talk on behalf of my faculty,” he said. “The purchasing power of faculty has gone down by 20%. They’ve received only one raise. Does the governor have a solution to the chaos of our negotiations?”
Steininger said he can’t make any such future commitments due to the volatility of oil prices and other factors.
“Every year, we face wildly different things so we deal with fiscal problems differently,” he said. “I didn’t expect us to deal with a pandemic in our budget. I don’t know what we’ll face in the coming years. That will affect our future plans.”
Those remarks prompted a few sighs and muttered remarks, but no disruptions, from the employees holding signs. Board member Dale Anderson responded by objecting to categorizing the union’s stalemate as chaos since “this type of wording doesn’t get us to a fair settlement,” while Buretta used the moment to address the protesters directly.
“We appreciate your presence and hopefully there will be a resolution,” she said.
Besides recovering from the pandemic, the university is trying to move forward in an era when the state’s population is declining, the ratio of high school graduates entering college is declining nationally and job openings nationally are near an all-time high, said Michelle Rizk, vice president of university relations and the university’s chief strategy, planning and budget officer.
“It will require (the university to develop partnerships because funding won’t be coming directly to the university,” she said, stating officials are current focusing on furthering those with workplaces and dual university/secondary school enrollment.
”We’re looking at fast-track credentials partnering with industry,” she said.
Board member John Davies said while the workplace emphasis is worthy, more emphasis should be placed on Alaska’s unique opportunities in research.
“The UAA system is one of the world leaders in developing our understanding of climate impact,” he said. “I came here as an undergraduate student. I studied earthquakes. Alaska is the best place to study earthquakes and volcanoes.”