My Turn: Legislators threaten viability of UA

  • By MATTHIEU OSTRANDER
  • Sunday, March 6, 2016 1:02am
  • Opinion

For University of Alaska Anchorage students paying attention to the Legislature, the past month has been devastating. Despite receiving postcards, letters, office visits, emails and calls from thousands of concerned students, legislators in Juneau are moving forward with drastic budget cuts that will amputate portions of the University of Alaska.

After absorbing a roughly 17 percent budget cut over the last three years, the House Finance University Subcommittee sheared off $54 million from the budget proposal approved by the UA Board of Regents in December. The cuts amount to $35 million more than Gov. Bill Walker’s original proposal.

Legislators looking to make their mark on the university have the potential to thrust it into chaos. Despite routine communication with university administrators and students, members of the House Finance University Subcommittee outright accused the Board of Regents of mismanaging funds by not focusing solely on “student instruction.”

While the cuts themselves are disheartening, how they have occurred is even worse. Beyond decimating the UA budget, the Legislature sees fit to tell the university how to operate. This budget doesn’t just defund the university, it eliminates the ability of the Board of Regents and UA President Jim Johnsen to implement the strategic pathways framework, a concept that promises to ensure a healthy, functional and viable university system. A budget cut of the magnitude proposed by House Finance truncates the programs that make higher education in Alaska attractive and drives away faculty who provide quality instruction to students.

While student instruction is important, the opportunities available through extracurriculars are often the deciding factor when choosing a college. It’s the ability to make learning impactful through research endeavours that tangibly affect our community. For example, at UAA, Alex West recently became the first student to obtain a patent after she invented a hydro-powered fish grinder that disperses waste from salmon carcasses back into rivers, reducing human-bear confrontations. It’s the ability to participate in co-curricular activities that make higher education a transformative experience. Just last week, UAA basketball star Megan Mullings was named GNAC Player of the Year. Our university system is full of students who have the potential to craft their own amazing stories, and the opportunities available through co-curriculars to write those stories in Alaska.

The Alaska House and Senate majorities will be responsible for stripping opportunities away from thousands of students across the state. Lost will be academic programs and student support services that make our campuses attractive to students. For the last seven years, UAA has received the national “Military Friendly School” designation for the support, programs and services we provide to embrace our servicemen and women seeking higher education. Graduates from UAA have gone on to participate in important research about the Arctic, and even work in Washington, D.C. for Alaska’s congressional delegation. While the Legislature calls upon the university system to increase the number of recipients of the Alaska Performance Scholarship (APS), a top-performing student would be foolish to stay in Alaska knowing they’ll have fewer opportunities after these cuts.

Cutting publicly funded higher education in Alaska would be far less grave if our state were not woefully devoid of human capital. According to a December 2015 NCHEMS presentation based on U.S. Census bureau data, those born in Alaska are among the least likely in the country to obtain a bachelor’s degree, second only to Nevada. Between 2011 and 2013, over 11,000 residents with a high school diploma left the state, joined by an additional 10,000 residents with some college but no degree.

Research shows that one of the strongest indicators of where an individual will put down their roots — raise a family, get a job, live their life — is where they graduate from college. The message the Legislature is sending to students is that their voices are not being heard, and they should seek out an education elsewhere.

In the short term, prospective students will make plans to leave the state to pursue their degrees, with many never to return. Tuition dollars and bright minds will leave Alaska to innovate elsewhere. Long term, we will have fewer highly-educated residents to build businesses and support local economies, and we will lose our reputation as the state where dreams can be turned into realities.

• Matthieu Ostrander is an economics and political science major at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the vice president of the Union of Students, which represents over 18,000 undergraduate and graduate members at UAA.

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