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Regents chair: Keeping University of Alaska strong keeps our state strong

  • Author: Jo Heckman
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published February 24, 2016

Last week when the University Board of Regents convened its two-day meeting in Fairbanks, there was a line out the door of those who wanted to share with us their views and thoughts on issues ranging from the importance of their university research projects, to their work in bio sciences and philosophy, music production, Cooperative Extension, the importance of the school of fisheries, and teacher education. While the range of concerns was broad, there was one thing in common -- a commitment to the university as a critical part of our state.

Regents are grateful for this outpouring from those who take time out of their busy lives to come talk to us. Such engagement illustrates that people care; they are passionate about our university and have its best interests at heart. I am deeply appreciative to all who testified, whether from the UA community or community at large. We are fortunate to count you as our friends and supporters, and I thank you all.

People often think that it's only the job of the president, the regents and the chancellors to represent the university's needs, and present our case to Legislature to procure funding for the university. That is true, and we all work hard on the university's behalf. I can tell you that President Jim Johnsen and Chancellors Tom Case, Mike Powers and Rick Caulfield and their staffs have worked many hours to provide all of the information that our legislators have requested.

Our legislators are Alaskans who have assumed the responsibility of making very difficult decisions for our state. Their job is not easy, but they must understand something UA President Jim Johnsen told us in January during his State of the University address. He said: "It takes a great university to make a great state." I would add to that wisdom that it takes great advocates, and great thinkers to support a great university.

The university's needs a sound budget to provide programs that meet our state's workforce needs and train our future engineers, teachers, nurses, miners, artists and technicians, and that meet our global needs. The university is an integral part of diversifying our economy through commercializing the intellectual property developed through our research, through building a culture of education, and by providing a top quality workforce to fill the key jobs in our economy.

I firmly believe that the role of our university is to transform lives and serve our society and citizenry by educating, creating knowledge, supporting research and putting knowledge to work on a large scale with excellence. We are creating an educated economy where educated citizenry will help our state to be the best it can be.

The House Finance Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Tammie Wilson, will met Wednesday to consider the university's budget, and we hope the subcommittee and the full House Finance Committee will consider the following:

• Provide the resources needed for university leadership to implement Strategic Pathways, which will drive the realignment of the university and its budget.

Strategic Pathways will help the university place priorities where they will strengthen, not weaken, important programs that serve state needs.

The principle behind Strategic Pathways is a framework for moving forward in leaner budget times, to reduce gradually and to work through difficult decisions for an improved university. But, with the large budget reduction being considered by the Committee, the university would have no choice but to move much more quickly and to make decisions sooner rather than later.

• A precipitous decrease in the budget to $288 million would result in hundreds of jobs lost and accelerate the Strategic Pathways timeframe.

The governor's budget would allow us to move forward with our timeline. If, however, the budget is further reduced, it will force earlier decisions than we'd like to make. These are major decisions, and the university should have the necessary and desired full input from our staff, faculty, students, alumni and donors.

The proposed budget could seriously reduce the university's ability to respond to the state's educational, research and outreach needs for years to come.

• Research drives economic development:

In FY 15, 81 percent of federal research grant/contract funding at UA was spent on Alaska projects for Alaskans. We know that for every $1 of state general fund investment, UAF was able to leverage this investment and generate an additional $4.10 of external funding.

The research dollars spent in Alaska pay twice. The dollars pay for salaries, goods and services, and contracts will local businesses. The products of the research pay again in the form of improved understanding of our environment, business climate, markets, engineering methods, health care, and so on. Existing businesses or new businesses created to market the products of research create wealth in the private sector, provide jobs for Alaskans, and diversify our economy.

• Avoid intent language that limits the Regents' ability to direct the university's budget.

On Wednesday, the House Finance subcommittee on the university's budget will debate whether to cut the university budget from $350 million to $288 million, and the subcommittee will pass a final budget recommendation on to the House Finance Committee. Let us do our duty and govern the university's budget as the Constitution has directed us to do, and give us the funds to continue that job in a manner that best preserves the academic excellence of the University of Alaska. After all, it does take a great university to make a great state.

Jo Heckman is chair of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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