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More university cuts could cause midyear tuition hike and kill programs, officials warn

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen told the UA Board of Regents at a special meeting Thursday that the state Senate's nearly $22 million cut to the statewide system could lead to a midyear tuition increase, the end of certificate and degree programs and continued enrollment declines.

The $21.7 million cut has become the worst-case scenario for the UA system this year as state lawmakers continue to negotiate a budget in Juneau, grappling with a $3 billion state deficit.

University leaders discussed the impact of the proposal and budget contingency plans at Thursday's meeting, which was mainly held over video conference in Anchorage with officials in Fairbanks and Juneau.

They also discussed what is now the best-case scenario: legislative acceptance of the proposed budgets from Gov. Bill Walker and the state House, which include $325 million for UA, the same amount the university system received last year.

University of Alaska Board of Regents held a special meeting Thursday to discuss budget plans for the next academic year. UA President Jim Johnsen (left), regents and other university officials were in Anchorage and spoke to others in Fairbanks and Juneau by video conference. (Tegan Hanlon / Alaska Dispatch News)
University of Alaska Board of Regents held a special meeting Thursday to discuss budget plans for the next academic year. UA President Jim Johnsen (left), regents and other university officials were in Anchorage and spoke to others in Fairbanks and Juneau by video conference. (Tegan Hanlon / Alaska Dispatch News)

The House and Walker proposals are less than what UA asked for in November, when regents approved a budget request that included $341 million from the Legislature as well as a 5 percent tuition hike.

UA officials said a $16 million increase would allow them to implement a long-term plan that gradually decreases reliance on state money while diversifying revenue and increasing student enrollment.

Johnsen told regents the plan "didn't really get much of a hearing" in Juneau.

Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, didn't return a message left with a spokesperson.

Instead of a "glide-path to less reliance on the state," the lawmakers' proposals provide "more of a hard landing," Johnsen told reporters at a press conference after the meeting.

"That makes it very tough for us to go through the gradual, thorough, analytical process that our university and our students deserve," he said.

Johnsen told regents UA also faces challenges with cutting costs quickly, given long layoff notice requirements for faculty and the obligation to teach currently enrolled students from programs slated for elimination.

Chancellors from the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast on Thursday provided broad summaries of what the budget cuts would mean for their campuses.

The impacts included reduced faculty and staff positions and the evaluation of programs for elimination.

Johnsen said the additional cuts would follow years of program and job eliminations at UA. He told regents that in fall 2016, UA had 927 fewer employees than it did two years ago.

Since January 2016, the UA system has eliminated or suspended 50 academic programs. State funding had been cut by 14 percent since the 2013-14 academic year, he said.

"We are at the place now where we simply can't take incremental cuts," he told the regents. "We have employees all across the university system who are wearing multiple hats and who are doing so with less time per week in order to save the university money. So serious impacts are being felt now and with the reduction at this level, those impacts will become more and more serious."

The $303 million general fund budget proposed by the Senate would bring UA back to around 2008 funding levels, not adjusting for inflation, according to Robbie Graham, UA spokesperson.

Johnsen and several regents said during Thursday's meeting they were surprised and dismayed last week when the Senate's Republican-led majority announced an additional $5.7 million reduction to UA on top of a $16 million cut the Senate had previously proposed for the system.

Regent Jo Heckman, of Fairbanks, said she worried every year it seemed state Legislators made "very quick decisions" about cutting the university budget.

"We are not so quick in figuring out how to preserve who we are," she said. "I'm not sure where we go from here."

The regents also spoke out against the Senate proposal to eliminate the Alaska Performance Scholarship, a signature initiative of former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell that awards free tuition to top high school students, and the Alaska Education Grant, which provides needs-based financial assistance to eligible Alaska students who attend UA.

The Senate bill would instead put that money toward "education innovation grants" for public schools.

At the press conference, Johnsen said UA officials would continue to prepare budget scenarios, while also advocating for state funding and college financing programs.

"We'll advocate for what we want and prepare for what we get," he said.

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