Alaska's governor did some cheerleading for intercollegiate athletics Thursday during a brief appearance at the University of Alaska Board of Regents meeting.
When asked by a regent how he felt about athletics, Gov. Bill Walker offered an endorsement for college sports teams, which face potentially devastating cuts at the University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"I feel pretty strongly about athletics. I go to as many of those activities as I can, as my schedule allows," Walker told the regents. "It would be hard to have a university without athletics as part of it. So I'm a strong supporter of athletics."
Walker's enthusiasm didn't change UA president Jim Johnsen's recommendations to the regents, which would likely ensure some teams at UAA and UAF would be eliminated depending on what regents decide to do at their November meeting.
Both UAA and UAF are NCAA Division II members and have separate sports teams, with 13 teams at UAA and 10 at UAF. Johnsen said he plans to ask the NCAA for a waiver from its rule that requires Division II members to field a minimum of 10 teams.
Johnsen will also ask NCAA for permission to create a consortium, which would essentially combine the two athletic programs, putting some teams in Anchorage and some in Fairbanks.
Johnsen's recommendations arose from a review of intercollegiate athletics as part of a framework called "Strategic Pathways," meant to reduce redundancy across the UA system and focus on strengths at each campus in light of the university's financial challenges.
As part of the first phase of the process, teams reviewed athletics as well as six other academic and administrative programs. The teams presented a series of options for each program earlier this year, and Johnsen announced his preferred direction Thursday.
While the plan for athletics was the most controversial of Johnsen's recommendations, others received some pushback from regents, including Johnsen's recommendation to go from three schools of education and three deans at UAA, UAF and the University of Alaska Southeast to one school and one dean. It was not announced where that school would be headquartered.
Johnsen also recommended UA's three schools of management shrink to two schools with two deans: one at UAA and one at UAF, eliminating the school at UAS and folding its programs into its School of Arts and Sciences. A motion by regents to have Johnsen look at consolidating management into a single school failed in a 5-6 vote.
Johnsen presented ambitious cost-reduction goals for the administrative processes reviewed, including reducing $55 million in information technology costs and $200 million in procurement costs by 20 percent.
For athletics, Johnsen said he wanted to reduce funding from the university's general fund in half by 2020 and eliminate it by 2025. In 2015, athletics at UAA and UAF cost a combined $16 million, $13 million of which came from UA's general funds and mandatory student fees. The rest came from private sources, including ticket sales.
Johnsen said the $13 million going toward athletics could be put elsewhere, given the university's financial situation. UA lost $50 million in state funding this academic year and is anticipating another multimillion cut next year.
"You could provide over 2,000 full-tuition scholarship with $13 million," Johnsen said. "You could hire 100 faculty with $13 million. You could give it to some researchers."
But regents said they were concerned that eliminating UA's athletic programs would trigger community backlash and create instability for current student athletes, as well as issues with recruiting. They unanimously passed a motion directing university management to develop options to allow UA to avoid eliminating athletic programs.
"The backlash will be so intense that we just have to be really thoughtful about how we handle this moving forward," said regent Gloria O'Neill. Athletics, she said, "is one of the greatest draws that the community has to the university — it's how the university and the campuses bring people in."
Johnsen said the university hasn't made any formal requests to the NCAA, but the idea of asking for an exemption to the 10-sport rule or for permission to form a consortium is already being pursued.
"We have engaged expert counsel to advise us and assist us with this," he said.
UAA Athletic Director Keith Hackett said after the meeting he wasn't ready to comment on Thursday's discussion.
"A lot of things were talked about today and there's a lot of information to digest," he said. "For right now I think the best thing is for me to not make any statement."
Robbie Graham, UA spokesperson, said regents will vote on Johnsen's three academic recommendations in November, as well as his recommendation for athletics. In the meantime, Johnsen will create implementation teams to look more closely at the financial implications of the recommendations and their feasibilities, she said.
Graham said the regents did not have to vote on Johnsen's recommendations for IT, procurement and research administration. It was unclear if he would move forward with them before November.
A brief look at Johnsen's recommendations:
— IT: Reduce the number of IT employees embedded in certain schools or programs, pulling them into a central hub on the university campuses. Create an IT governance council that will prioritize service and reduce costs by 20 percent.
— Procurement: Have a centralized office at UAF and a second office at UAA. Reduce costs by 20 percent through bulk purchasing.
— Research administration: Consolidate research administration at UAF with centers at each campus under UAF leadership.
— Engineering: No structural changes recommended. Increase collaboration between UA's two engineering colleges, including common course numbering and a common curriculum.
— Intercollegiate athletics: Pursue with NCAA a waiver from the 10-team rule or permission to form a consortium. If those are unsuccessful, consider modifying existing programs at UAA and UAF to reduce costs "and/or elimination of one or both programs." The regents passed a motion Thursday directing UA to avoid eliminating athletic programs.
— Management/business: Have a team build a plan to move from three deans over three schools to two deans over two schools at UAA and UAF. Programs will still be delivered from faculty at all three universities, but each campus will have specific focuses.
— Education: Have a team build a plan to move from three deans over three schools to one dean at one university. Develop a plan to phase out bachelor degrees in favor of disciplinary degrees plus licensure and graduate programs. It is not stated which university will house the School of Education.
Beth Bragg contributed to this story.