University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said he received relatively good news this week after the state Legislature struck a budget deal: the university would face a smaller cut to its state funding than it had braced for amid crashing oil prices.
But it wasn't enough to avoid the elimination of hundreds of staff and faculty positions in the university's statewide spending plan approved Friday by the UA Board of Regents.
"Yes, it's time to celebrate," Johnsen said during this week's regents meeting. "But the pressure is still very serious on the university to reduce costs."
In a 10-1 vote Friday, the regents passed a $910 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year that will result in an estimated loss of 579 positions, including 172 layoffs. The budget still included the 5 percent tuition increase approved by regents in November, but did not include an additional midyear tuition increase university leaders had previously discussed.
The approved 2017 budget, which starts July 1, includes about $335 million in state funding. That's about $43 million less than regents requested from the Legislature and about $16 million less than UA received last year. The $335 million is also $35 million over what was included in the House's budget, before a joint legislative conference committee resolved differences between the House and Senate.
"We are happy to receive that, but we wish it was more," said Board of Regents President Jo Heckman.
Hundreds of jobs cut
The budget means an estimated 579 regular and temporary positions across the university system will be eliminated, according to a UA budget document presented to regents this week.
The university said 172 of those positions will be eliminated through layoffs, 160 through attrition and 247 through the nonrenewal of contracts.
"It's horrific because our state's economy is hurting and we are a big employer," Heckman said. "The decisions are not good from any angle, but we're not sure what choices we have."
Regular staff and temporary faculty faced the largest number of eliminations, at 259, and 131, respectively. Campuses will cut four officers and senior administrator positions along with five academic leader positions. The statewide office will cut 15 regular staff positions. The Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses will cut a total of 82 student positions, according to the document.
The budget decrease will also impact programs, according to a Thursday memo from Dan White, UA vice president of academic affairs and research.
On Friday, regents approved the deletion of three degree programs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus: the master's of electrical engineering, the bachelor of arts in Russian studies and the bachelor of arts in theater.
Programs suspended included the University of Alaska Anchorage's environmental regulations and permitting graduate certificate, master of civil engineering, master of science in arctic engineering and graduate certificate in earthquake engineering.
No money for Fairbanks building
Regents this week did not have much state funding for the UA capital budget.
Legislators did not approve any of the $134.8 million UA requested, including the $34.8 million to complete the half-finished, 120,000-square-foot engineering building at UAF.
However, legislators transfered $18 million to UA to build the controversial extension of Elmore Road through Anchorage's University-Medical District. Chris Christensen, UA associate vice president for state relations, said Thursday UA cannot use that money for any other purpose.
"It was never the university's and will never be the university's," Christensen said.
Johnsen proposed the university put out a bond to finish the UAF building, and regents agreed to have a committee look at a bond proposal.
Without state funding, regents also approved moving $10 million from its operating budget into its deferred maintenance budget.
"We have to figure out a way to put money into an account that will take care of our buildings," Heckman said.
In the budget passed by legislators, they included intent language for UA, detailing what is expected from leaders. Johnsen said the language does not bind the university by law, but the university "paid close attention" to it.
Under the intent language, the UA system and its leaders were asked or directed to:
* Return to the Legislature by year-end with "a specific plan for consolidation." The plan would include, "but would not be limited to," the university restructuring into one administrative unit with one accreditation.
* Prioritize and streamline its personal services.
* Make improving student retention and graduation rates one of the highest priorities of the UA president.
* Increase contributions from alumni and private industry by a combined 20 percent.
Lawmakers also asked UA to improve the utilization of its land grants, conduct a cost-to-revenue analysis and better use community buildings, among other demands.
Heckman said she understood lawmakers wanted to ensure they received a "return on investment" and the university had to be accountable to the state.
She said university leaders were already exploring what it would look like to go from three accredited universities — at Fairbanks, Anchorage and the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau — to a single accreditation. Johnsen has initiated "strategic pathways," to reduce redundancy across the system and to focus on each university's strengths.
Maybe a year from now, Heckman said, regents will be able to paint a better picture of what the university system will look like in the future.
"You can't turn things around on a dime," she said.
Gov. Bill Walker has yet to sign the Legislature's budget.