Gov. Mike Dunleavy released his budget Wednesday that proposes cutting 41 percent of the total operating budget for the university system, prompting outcry from university officials and education advocates.
University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen responded by saying an estimated 1,300 positions would need to be eliminated. As a result of past budget cuts, they’ve already cut about 1,200 positions.
“Those were not empty positions,” Johnsen said at a press conference in Fairbanks after Dunleavy’s budget unveiling. “Those were names on a payroll. My suspicion is that they’re not going to open up another drive-thru coffee stand, they’re going to move to another state where the economy is booming.”
Johnsen said he would have no choice but to propose to the Board of Regents deep cuts for every UA campus including community campuses, major reductions to faculty and staff, and reduction and elimination of educational programs and services across the state.
“Cuts at this level cannot simply be managed or accommodated,” he said in a press release. “If this budget passes the Legislature, it will devastate university programs and services, and the negative effects will be felt in communities across the entire state.”
He said the board will need to look at what a skeletal version of the UA system looks like.
The governor’s fiscal year 2020 budget, made public this morning, reduces the state-funded university operating budget by $134 million, or 41 percent, from its current operating budget, and $155 million from last year’s budget. This is the largest budget cut in the university’s 100-year history, Johnsen said, and comes on top of state budget cuts in four out of the last five years.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy did not speak to the cuts to education at his press conference Wednesday. He deferred most questions on the specifics of his budget to Budget Director Donna Arduin.
“We reviewed and revised programs with unsustainable spending that have come without corresponding positive results,” Arduin said. “Our investment in the University of Alaska is much higher than other states, and is eroded by low retention and graduation rates. As you know Alaska’s education system has the highest cost per student in the nation and the lowest amount of dollars going to instruction.”
To emphasize the size of a $134 million cut, Johnsen said the UA Southeast’s budget alone costs $25 million, all the community campuses combined cost $38 million and UA Anchorage costs $120 million. They would have to double their tuition to make up for that big of a cut.
“Even closing the entire UAA campus does not meet that ($134 million) cut,” Johnsen said.
He said in the past, cuts have been managed by focusing on eliminating staff, rather than reducing programs. But with a cut of this size everything is on the table when it comes to looking at reducing the budget.
“What’s ironic is I just came from the midsession summit of the Southeast Conference, and we were talking about how the university can work with our partners in health care and mine training to create workers for our economy here in Southeast Alaska, and this proposal will fundamentally undermine our ability to do that,” said UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield in an interview with the Empire. “It’s such a dramatic, draconian cut, that I think unfortunately many young Alaskans will probably go out of state. And that will be a huge loss for Alaska, for our economy and all the work we’ve done over the years to build an Alaskan workforce.”
A rally at just the right time
Students, alumni and other advocates for the university system held a pre-planned rally outside the Capitol, just one hour after the budget cut was announced publicly by the governor’s Office of Management and Budget.
Some organizers didn’t even hear about the university cuts yet. The second annual non-partisan rally was coincidentally scheduled at the same time as the budget unveiling.
“I was kind of trying not to know exactly (the extent of the cuts),” said Robin Gilcrest, UA faculty senate president and rally organizer. “Education is important. The university is important. A great state deserves a great university. I think the cuts are going to affect everyone. We are trying to keep the message positive.”
Several representatives and senators were outside attending the rally, including Juneau Reps. Andi Story and Sara Hannan, along with Sen. Jesse Kiehl.
“We can point to people of the university all across this state who build the brains that build our future that build our economy,” Kiehl said during the rally.
Griffin Plush, a UAS social science student from Seward, also spoke at the rally. “The cut that is being proposed today is just unprecedented,” he said. “Ever since I was admitted, we’ve seen program cuts, and students leave. I know that our elected leaders will soon hear our voices out here, and throughout Alaska and make the choice to fund our future.”
Rallygoers responded chanting, “Fund our future! Fund our future! Fund our future!”
Plush said there is a better path forward than relying solely on oil for funding.
“This university makes it so Alaskans can grow up and have jobs in this changing economy, and it is providing the base so that we can have a just transition and move toward an economy that is diversified and sustainable for the future.”
One freshman at UAS was attending the rally, Noah Williams. After the rally, he said in an interview with the Empire, “Already the budget cuts that have happened have been disastrous with the implication that only research would be cut.”
He said research is crucial to keeping high-quality professors at the universities in Alaska.
“To just cut the education system to the degree that’s being proposed right now, would not just, I believe, break two out of three of our campuses, it would break our entire system,” Williams said. “It’s just not sustainable to have a university with that kind of budget. To do that, for people who say, ‘pull yourself up by your boot straps,’ well the university is the bootstraps of people who want to work hard and want to get themselves educated, get a degree. That’s what they have to pull themselves up with, and to cut it like this is to take their bootstraps.”