University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen in 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen in 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: State’s budget climate puts value of Alaska’s higher education at risk

Thousands of students could be affected by a governor veto.

In this austere budget environment, and after intense scrutiny, the Legislature passed a budget that includes a reasonable $5 million general fund reduction for the University of Alaska. In the next few days, the governor will decide whether the state will continue its investment in the university — allowing Alaskans of all ages to carry on, uninterrupted, with their vocational, continuing or higher education — or veto a large portion of the UA budget.

Make no mistake, the university cannot absorb an additional, substantial reduction in state general funds without abruptly halting numerous student career pathways mid-stream, eliminating services, or shutting down community campuses or universities. An additional reduction of even $10 million — on top of the $51 million in cuts we’ve already taken — will mean the discontinuation of programs and services with little or no notice, and that in turn will have ripple effects, damaging UA’s ability to generate revenue and causing even greater harm across the state.

[With state government shutdown looming, university preparing for late, reduced budget]

Severe reductions in state Undesignated General Fund (UGF) as originally proposed by the governor would require closure of hundreds of programs and affect thousands of students. To provide context for such a reduction, $134 million is nearly the equivalent of the total UGF budget for UAA and UAS combined. At that level we may need to cut whole programs or close one or more of our universities, UAA, UAF or UAS.

But a university system is not like a typical corporation or factory; it needs a critical mass of faculty with different specialties to provide a quality education. Eliminating whole programs to reduce costs does not eliminate our responsibility to affected students. We are obligated to complete their programs, which carries costs that delay any immediate savings.

The university’s total budget this year is comprised of $327 million from the state (about 40 percent). The remainder comes from tuition and fees paid by our students, research grants and contracts, proceeds from land development, and private donations. However, those private revenue sources will inevitably be harmed if general fund support is reduced.

Prior cuts have had the effect of reducing opportunities for our students and services to our communities, while increasing tuition. The cumulative reduction in the university’s budget of $195 million over the last five years has resulted in significant reductions in administrative staff and services, to the point that further reductions will compromise UA’s ability to meet its many obligations. Indeed, the university’s statewide administration, which provides consolidated support services, has taken a 37 percent cut over the last several years, almost triple the average cut across the university system.

[University officials to consider having one University of Alaska, not three]

Still, the university remains a highly accessible and affordable path to an excellent education and the opportunities that only education can provide in the workplace. However, that will not continue with further substantial reductions.

We have had numerous meetings with the governor and his team, demonstrating how the university has focused its mission, reduced costs, increased private fundraising, developed strategic plans with measurable goals, created a task force to look at the university’s structure, and developed an exciting vision for how the university enables Alaskans to create a strong and sustainable future for our state.

The governor was receptive, and I think impressed with the work that’s been accomplished by the university. However, he may feel compelled to follow through with his original proposal to reduce the university’s appropriation.

As a result, if the governor vetoes a substantial amount, I ask that you contact your legislator to request that he or she consider overriding that veto. The educational investments and opportunities for thousands of Alaskans will depend on it.


• Jim Johnsen is the president of the University of Alaska.


More in Opinion

Web
Have something to say?

Here’s how to add your voice to the conversation.

A sign outside the Mendenhall Mall directs voters to an early, in-person polling location. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Opinion: The facts about our presidential choices

Americans need to vote for the honest, decent family man.

This undated photo shows Dr. Al Gross. (Courtesy Photo / Dr. Al Gross for U.S. Senate)
Opinion: Gross will lead, and Sullivan has failed

Unless he is forced to speak out, Dan Sullivan remains near silent on major environmental challenges.

This photo of a by-mail ballot sent to an Alaska voter in October shows Ballot Measure 2.  (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Opinion: Elections Should be free, fair and open

By Bruce Botelho Ballot Measure 2 is about ending the influence of… Continue reading

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sen. Al Gross, an independent running with Democratic support, is challenging Sullivan in Alaska, a state that has long been a GOP stronghold. Across the country, Republicans are nervous about Senate seats like Sullivan’s they once thought safe as Democrats hope to capitalize on President Donald Trump’s unpopularity to retake the chamber. (Al Drago / Pool)
Opinion: Sullivan has earned my vote

If not for Sen. Dan Sullivan and our congressional delegation, we may have been forced to close.

”I Voted” stickers wait for Alaskan voters to pick them up during early in-person voting at Mendenhall Mall on Oct. 22. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Opinion: Sullivan has shown loyalty to party trumps the voices of Alaskan

Alaskans shouldn’t be surprised that it took Dan Sullivan a decade to say he opposes the Pebble Mine.

tease
Opinion: Why I’m choosing Gross again

Now, 25 years later, we are again choosing Al Gross, this time as our candidate for the U.S. Senate.

In this May 7, 2020 photo, Sen. Dan Sullivan wears a mask at a hearing in Washington. Sullivan's office released a statement Monday saying the senator would support a confirmation vote to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court even in an election year. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)
Opinion: Sullivan has earned my vote

Senator Sullivan has a proven record of furthering Alaskans’ need.

Les Gara
Opinion: Voting yes on Ballot Measure 1 is voting yes for Alaska

We should be partners with the oil industry, not junior partners.

Most Read