My Turn: Cuts at UA are bad for Alaska

  • Sunday, February 14, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

The Alaskan legislative majority continues to resist a move toward diversified revenue sources while Alaska’s future hangs on the brink. In a recent meeting with Alaska’s budget director Pat Pitney, Sen. Mike Dunleavy said he has no stomach for diversified revenue until he’s satisfied that we’ve cut all we can cut. His majority colleagues agreed.

Over the past 18 months or more, the public sector has already cut beyond what can be cut without damaging services, including road plowing, ferry service, home health aides, public school teachers, school counselors and aides, and entire programs at the university. The legislative-mandated cuts are negatively affecting Alaskans and endangering Alaska’s economic future.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen proclaimed in his recent State of the University address, “It takes a great university to make a great state.” A great university requires faculty and staff who can teach and support our students throughout their education. It requires both classroom and online degree options. It also requires a wide variety of majors and programs for students to choose from at every main campus across the state.

None of this is free. Yet the Alaskan constitution mandates that the state maintain a functioning university system. The legislative majority’s refusal to embrace diversified revenue streams threatens campuses across the state. The consequence of reduced options and leaner campuses is that some students will give up on their college aspirations.

Others may decide to leave the state for schools with more options and better support. History shows that these students get jobs in other states. Alaska’s future depends on an educated workforce, and that depends on a strong in-state system of higher education. A weak university system damages our state’s economic prospects.

Recently, 50 non-tenure track faculty at UAA were told they’ll receive up to a 20 percent pay cut next year, although they’re already among the lowest paid faculty in the system. Non-tenure track faculty at UAF have received “notices of non-renewal” for the next academic year. Adjuncts, who rank lowest on the pay scale, have been told that at this point in time, there’s no money for them in the next budget. These professors teach nearly all freshman and sophomore general education classes. UA can’t function without them, yet its budget has no room for them.

The Alaska Journal of Commerce reported that campuses statewide have left several hundred positions unfilled. A hiring freeze remains in place. UAF employee headcount has shrunk by 205 people since 2013. UAA has eliminated 40 degree programs and is reorganizing dozens more, resulting in fewer workers and fewer options, plus less support for students.

The current plan put forth by UA administrators and the Board of Regents to focus each campus on one specialization will result in more layoffs. Even more importantly, it will mean fewer options, longer lines, and more frustrating hurdles for students across the state. Not all students can succeed in online classes, contrary to what this plan assumes. The budget crisis, and the legislative majority’s refusal to consider taxes and diversified income, are the only justification for this plan.

Every study conducted about our state’s future concludes that the Legislature must move to a diversified revenue stream. The best solution is a mix of individual and industry taxes, plus investment in revenue-generating industries that are not based in fossil fuels, such as alternative energy, tourism, agriculture, marijuana sales, arctic research, etc.

Cuts can’t pull our state out of this crisis. Standard and Poor’s has already dropped our bond rating outlook from “stable” to “negative,” because our Legislature refuses to compromise. Every week, the outlook gets bleaker, and ordinary Alaskans suffer the consequences. Our years of living off oil revenue are waning.

For the sake of all Alaskans, from K-12 and university students to the elderly, and all Alaskans who have to drive on under-maintained roads, use ferries with reduced routes, or depend on a UA graduate or public employee for assistance, we need to diversify and get smarter about our cuts. It’s time the legislative majority acknowledge this fact. Diversifying our revenue is the only way Alaska will prosper.

• Kate Quick is an assistant professor of developmental English at UAF’s Interior Alaska Campus. She is also the mother of three public school children and the wife of an Alaskan small business owner.

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