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Foreclosing on future, Legislature takes aim at higher education

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published March 10, 2016

Our state Legislature is taking aim at higher education, proposing crippling budget cuts for the University of Alaska.

We haven't seen details because the university does not have contingency plans on the shelf to instantly dismantle programs and eliminate hundreds of jobs.

Even in a crisis atmosphere, it takes time for a complex organization that serves tens of thousands of people every day to determine how it could shrink by tens of millions of dollars and reduce services across the state. It has to keep enrollment declines and the loss of faculty to a minimum.

Unlike straightforward debate topics such as the relatively small amount of public money for public broadcasting, in which the potential loss of radio stations and communication services is easy to imagine, we are approaching a slow-motion disaster of much greater proportions, as yet undefined.

With the Legislature preparing to foreclose on the future, the schedule prohibits a statewide public debate about specifics that no one can possibly know just yet.

Although the numbers are in flux, the Legislature is plotting a direction that will damage the Alaska economy and weaken the prospects that higher education can help Alaskans escape the worst of the doom and gloom that appears ready to envelop the state.

We are here because the Alaska Legislature has chosen to approach the budget with a single-minded focus on cutting spending. It is a failure of our political system.

The decisions on the university's future are being made as if in a vacuum — with no thought of the potential use of billions of state investment earnings, new taxes or redirecting hundreds of millions in state oil tax credits to ameliorate some or all of the damage.

That this process will erode the ability of the university to attract students and create momentum for continuing decline for years into the future seems to be lost on those who control the state budget.

Too many legislators — with their eyes on the next election — seem to know, as Oscar Wilde put it, the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The state House is poised to adopt a plan dreamed up by Fairbanks Rep. Tammie Wilson to reduce the university budget by $50.8 million, among the largest budget cuts proposed for any part of state government. The Republican majority in the House Finance Committee, including co-chairman Rep. Steve Thompson of Fairbanks, endorsed her shortsighted proposal.

Their arguments for cutting university spending by this degree are as empty as the unfinished UAF engineering building, a glittering monument on the Fairbanks campus to the oil price collapse and the inability to set priorities.

Wilson's uninformed plan began with her proposal to eliminate all funding for research, which she claimed was not a priority for state support or a core mission of the university.

The biggest hit from the Wilson plan would land with a heavy thud on Fairbanks.

A fellow Fairbanks legislator, Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki, said Wilson's subcommittee acted "without any real thought," a comment that drew a rebuke late Tuesday from Big Lake Rep. Mark Neuman, the co-chairman of the House Finance Committee.

"That might be your concept, but please don't try and make comments on what maybe the subcommittee thought," Neuman told Kawasaki.

Kawasaki's comment was not thoughtless, but the House majority plan for the university qualifies.

The cost of running any entity goes up every year because of health care costs, contracts for salary increases, equipment purchases and a range of other items. Under any scenario, university officials say the system will have to absorb $25.8 million in fixed increases for next year.

Looked at in this way, the House majority plan for the university will require a budget reduction of about $77 million.

About $38 million would come out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, while the University of Alaska Anchorage would have to trim $28 million. The cut to the UA system's statewide office would be $5 million and the University of Alaska Southeast would be trimmed by $6 million, according to figures provided by university budget planners.

One political purpose of the House plan is to make the Senate plan appear to be closer to reasonable. The governor proposed a cut of $16 million, while the Senate wants $10 million more. Add the magnified impact from the inclusion of fixed costs and the Senate would force a cut of $26 million at UAF, $19 million at UAA, $4 million at UAS and $3.2 million from the statewide office.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen, who has been on the job since Sept. 1, has announced plans for the most crucial restructuring program at the institution in its history. The university deserves a chance to see what comes out of this restructuring and how programs can be made more efficient. This must be an organized effort, not the slapdash scheme that emerged in Juneau.

The Legislature will improve the chances for the university to become a stronger institution only if it allows time for Johnsen's program to proceed.

As the Legislature prepares to vote on competing versions of the budget, to be resolved by conference committee in the weeks ahead, UAF is preparing to mark Arctic Science Summit Week, with more than 1,000 visitors from dozens of nations planning to get a firsthand look at the university and receive updates on the latest in Arctic research.

This gathering is all about future potential for the institution. It comes at a moment when the foundation is threatened.

The first layoff notices at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are expected at the end of March.

Dermot Cole, a 1979 graduate of the University of Alaska, is a Fairbanks-based columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News. The views expressed here are his and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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