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UA Regents meet to discuss budget, despite not having a budget to work with

Over two days, the University of Alaska Board of Regents discussed how to manage the state's lone university system in an era of declining state funding — despite still not knowing how much money they'll have to work with.

With the Alaska Legislature nowhere near offering up any budget they can handle, regents spent most of the multi-day meeting in Fairbanks considering options, but not coming up with any solutions.

"I'm reminded of the movie 'Groundhog Day,' when the protagonist is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over and over again," UA President Jim Johnsen told regents at the beginning of Thursday's meeting.

"Sadly, this isn't a movie that we can just turn off and get back to reality."

The meeting was something of a repeat of the board meeting in March, when regents also tried to make a plan despite not having a finalized budget from the Legislature. At the time, regents were optimistic they would have numbers to work with by June.

Legislators dismissed the regents' requested $341 million, with Gov. Bill Walker and the state House suggesting a funding level of $325 million for the next fiscal year.

But the Senate has offered a version that cuts a further $22 million on top of that. With the Legislature at a standstill, it's unclear when the university will know what it's working with.

"I wish I could report progress," UA associate vice president of government relations Miles Baker told regents about the status of the state budget Thursday. "But I can tell you that there is not a lot of progress happening behind the scenes, either."

Last year, regents were able to pass an operational and capital budget at their June meeting. However, they were forced to reconvene later in the month to address a $10 million veto to the budget from Gov. Bill Walker.

On Friday, Johnsen presented six different budget scenarios for regents to consider. The budgets vary in the amount of funding they might receive from lawmakers — from the original $341 million request to the low version of $303 proposed by the Senate.

Different plans offer different cost saving measures, from increased cuts to a possible tuition increase midway through next year if the legislators agree to the Senate's proposed version of the budget, considered the lowest possible outcome.

Any plans for a tuition increase would be proposed to regents later in the year.

"I want to avoid it as much as I possibly can," Johnsen told the regents Friday.

Regents also discussed "strategic pathways," the university system's massive and ongoing review of its major academic and administrative functions. 

Phase three began this year. The phase continues looking at a broad range of programs, including arts and humanities, mining training and land management, and considers options to streamline them throughout the university system. Johnsen said there are plans to visit campuses over the rest of the year to gather feedback. Proposed changes will be brought to the board in November.

Regents also heard reports on declining enrollment at all three campuses. The University of Alaska Anchorage has seen a 13 percent drop in enrollment from its peak in 2011. 

Chancellors from all three campuses said declining Alaska high school graduation rates are part of the reason for declining enrollment, as well as negative perceptions of the university due to ongoing financial uncertainty.

Chancellors from each university said they hope to increase enrollment using strategies like targeting specific groups, such as members of the military and veterans, and increasing retention rates of first-year students.