The University of Alaska president painted a distressing picture of what's occurring in the university system after enduring $145 million in cumulative state funding cuts over the past four years.
UA President Jim Johnsen outlined his concerns during his annual "State of the University" speech Feb. 20 to Commonwealth North at the Cuddy Center on the UAA campus. The system has 1,183 fewer employees and 50 fewer programs than three years ago, he said.
Gov. Bill Walker's budget includes flat funding of $317 million for the UA system, down from $378 million in 2014. University wide, the college has also experienced an enrollment decline from 32,700 to 27,800 during the same period.
"These cuts surely hurt us, but the greater impact is to our state because of our reduced capacity to serve Alaska's huge unmet needs for higher education," he said.
What followed was then a lengthy list of what concerns Johnsen. Alaska's costs for health care, K-12 education, energy and food are among the highest in the nation. High crime rates and the nation's highest unemployment plague the state.
"We should be concerned about our extremely low — among the last in the nation — high school graduation rates, college going rates, and college completion rates," he said. "We should be concerned about these numbers because they represent real people — Alaskans who will not have the opportunities for a good job and a good life for themselves and their families because of our state's low educational attainment."
Johnsen's lament included vocational and technical training that Alaskans lack as well as the college's academic degrees.
"We should be concerned because our economy, while increasingly diverse, ranks in the bottom 10 states in the New Economy Index and ranks dead last among all states in improvement from 2014 to 2017," he said, referring to the outlook from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation that looks at 25 indicators to measure the extent state economies are knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT driven and innovation oriented. Alaska was listed 42nd on the list.
Johnsen also got into the "land grant deficit" that has long bothered the university.
"Only Delaware received a smaller land grant than we did," he said.
That's ironic because the state has more land than any other state in the nation yet the UA system's lack of it "impaired growth for decades and unless remedied, will hobble us for years to come," he said.
The entire UA system, which comprises the Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau campuses as well as numerous small rural campuses, was granted 110,000 acres.
But it is due 360,000 acres more that has not yet been granted, he said, a matter that is taken up with the Alaska congressional delegation.
In 1862, an act passed by Congress under President Lincoln provided 11 million acres to states and territories to create a system of land grant colleges and universities. Alaska was to receive its allotted acres upon statehood. That hasn't occurred yet, though efforts were made through the years by the Alaska Legislature through land swaps that were later struck down by the Alaska Supreme Court. The efforts continue to today to gain the allotted lands, Johnsen said.
Johnsen said it's a sad fact that businesses requiring a skilled workforce still reach outside Alaska to hire. That costs businesses money and constrains opportunities for those businesses, "our people and our state," he said.
But it takes a great university to build a great state, Johnsen said. He hit on that theme several times in his talk, noting that this is the 101st anniversary of the university's founding in Fairbanks in 1917.
Despite the endurance of budget cuts that hurt the university's ability to deliver on all of its goals, Johnsen said there is nonetheless a lot to inspire confidence.
"We should be confident because the university is a wise investment. For every $1 the state gives us, we generate another $2. In research we generate more like $4 for every state dollar," he said.
He noted the many industry partners and K-12 partners.
If UA is able to educate more the state's teachers, it helps reduce the annual $20 million recruitment bill statewide, he said.
"If we are able to educate more health care professionals, we help bring down our health care costs. The same for engineers, miners, process technicians and scientists," he said.
And the university has demonstrated that it can make the tough decisions, Johnsen added. The Strategic Pathways process helped the board of regents determine a way to structure the system to reduce costs even while trying to enhance services, he said.
"We have cut redundancy, reduced our statewide organization by 37 percent, improved transferability of course credit across our campuses and increased the number of online courses."
The UA system now has 104 online programs, he said.
They also have cut travel costs by 32 percent since 2014 and "our employee health care costs are the lowest among the state's major public organization," Johnsen said.
At the same time, the UA system's work with school districts and the Alaska Department of Education aims to increase student success in the primary and secondary level to better prepare students for college. Concurrent enrollment programs, Rural Alaska Honors Institute, and the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program are examples of that, he said.
Then Johnsen announced the opening of the university's first business incubator, the Center for Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship or Center ICE. That's an innovation hub designed to accelerate economic diversification and entrepreneurship in the UA system, he said.
The first Center ICE "class" will consist of five university spinoff companies and 10 individual innovators. Copyrighted intellectual property produced at the university benefits the private sector and brings in funding at the same time, he noted.
The regents have settled on five goals to measure progress annually through 2025: Contribute to the state's economic development; provide a skilled workforce; continue to lead in Arctic research; increase the state's education attainment and operate more cost effectively.
That's why he is asking the Alaska Legislature for a $24 million increase in the operating budget from $317 million to $341 million this year.
So far, Johnsen believes he's received a fair hearing in Juneau.
"After these years of state disinvestment in the university, our ability to move these worthy goals forward is limited," he said.