University of Alaska regents OK proposed budget and a 5 percent tuition increase

University of Alaska regents on Thursday approved a 5 percent tuition hike for the next academic year and an operating budget request that relies on an increase in state funding at a time when most state agencies are facing steep cutbacks.

The regents passed the operating budget request on a day when they also switched directions and retained athletic programs which UA President Jim Johnsen previously suggested should be cut, including nordic ski teams at the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses. And regents left for another time a decision on whether to consolidate the schools of education in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks into a single administrative office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Johnsen, who presented the budget Thursday, has told regents that the university system needs to recast itself and focus on its core strengths after losing $52.7 million in its state funds over the past three years, and with more cuts expected to come.

The Regents largely approved the list of Johnsen's proposals at their day-long meeting in Fairbanks on Thursday, including the $341 million state funding request for the 2017-18 operating budget and the 5 percent across-the-board tuition increase.

"We've been consistently cut down in our budget request and the writing's on the wall," UA Regent Chair Jo Heckman said at the meeting Thursday morning. "We cannot continue to operate in the same way that we have been."

Ski teams stay, teacher education stalled

Johnsen's recommendation to consolidate the university's three schools of education to one at UAF with a single dean drew the most scrutiny from the regents Thursday. The recommendation came as a part of the Strategic Pathways process — the university's massive review of all of its major academic and administrative functions.


Johnsen told the regents Thursday that he chose UAF for education headquarters because of its strengths in research and the possibility of creating a doctoral program there for educators. He said the main drivers of consolidation were "accountability and performance." Faculty and degree programs would remain at all of the campuses, but there would only be one administration — in Fairbanks.

"I don't see this as simply moving a couple blocks on the board, I see this as setting up organizationally so we can go after the kinds of opportunities and challenges that we face," Johnsen said. "Right now our current organizational structure has not accomplished that."

But some regents questioned why Johnsen had not chosen the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, where they said there's a strong and successful teaching program.

"I, as a regent, support you in having a single school of education," Regent Gloria O'Neill, of Anchorage, told Johnsen at the meeting. "But I also need additional time and I need more information to make a real informed decision."

In a 6-4 vote, regents removed UAF's designation as the school's headquarters. In a following vote, the regents agreed to table the entire decision altogether, until their next meeting in March or a "special meeting" before.

The regents approved Johnsen's recommendation that UA eliminate the administration of the School of Management at the University of Alaska Southeast, moving the degree programs under the School of Arts and Sciences.

To the relief of university coaches and student athletes, the regents also approved Johnsen's recommendation that UA keep its ski and indoor track teams, a reversal of his prior proposal and a decision he said came after the NCAA declined to take action on the university's request for a waiver from Division II rules.

A long-term budget plan

In an 8-1 vote, regents passed an operating budget request Thursday that included $341 million in state funding, up from the $325 million the state Legislature appropriated to the university this year but under the $351 million the university received from the state for 2015-16.

Johnsen said UA needed the injection of state money next academic year to prevent declines in the university system, invest in strategic initiatives and plan for the future. If UA received $341 million from the state, he said, the university could follow a new long-term budget plan. The plan would include steady decreases in state funding starting in 2018-19, offset by significant increases in enrollment and incremental tuition increases.

Within the next eight years, under the plan, UA would increase its enrollment by about 45 percent and its tuition and fees by about 41 percent. According to the budget plan, an undergraduate, in-state, full-time student would go from paying an average of $7,146 per year in tuition and fees in 2016-17 to $10,069 per year in 2024-25.

UAA Chancellor Tom Case on Thursday described the enrollment goal set forth in the proposed, plan as "ambitious" and "tough."

Right now, the proposed plan depends on a lot of unknowns, including whether  the state Legislature will appropriate more money to UA for 2017-18 academic year.

Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Walker told UA to prepare for a $16 million to $32 million cut next academic year. Johnsen said he would continue to work with campuses to prepare contingency budget scenarios if the university did not receive $341 million from the state.

He presented two other budget scenarios to the regents Thursday based on a steady and sharp decline in state funding, both involving tuition increases and declines in student enrollment.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.