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Times are tough, but a University of Alaska budget increase is well worth the stretch

  • Author: Jim Johnsen
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 3, 2015

This week, as the University of Alaska Board of Regents prepares to consider a fiscal year 2017 proposed budget, I'm reminded of Winston Churchill, who when asked about cutting arts funding in favor of the war effort, replied, "Then what are we fighting for?"

Since returning to the university in August, after an absence of seven years, I've had the opportunity to hear firsthand the stories of success and impact that are a daily occurrence at UA. Graduation rates are at an all-time high, our students continue to distinguish themselves nationally and internationally, and we have seen a big increase in high-demand job area degrees and certificates. Our faculty are doing groundbreaking research in the Arctic as well as research that helps Alaska's industries and communities to become more resilient in the face of real challenges facing Alaska right now: climate change, high energy costs, and daunting health and social problems. We are doing all of this even as the face of our university is changing and as we work to reflect and represent our unique locations and cultures all across the state.

This is what I'm fighting for when I present a fiscal 2017 budget that reflects a 7.6 percent increase over the current year's budget. UA's accomplishments have been made possible because of investments made by the state and federal governments to support operations, programs, and research; by private companies, foundations, and individuals, including growing numbers of alumni, whose philanthropy enables a margin of excellence; and by our students and their families who demonstrate their belief in what we do through their tuition dollars.

I am sure there are those who believe we are out of touch with Alaska's current fiscal reality in suggesting an increase that amounts to $26.7 million. We do so because we believe our budget should be based upon our contractual commitments and on our obligation to ensure we meet our mission of teaching, research and public service on behalf of Alaska and Alaskans.

After carefully managing two consecutive years of state budget reductions with an effective impact of $52.9 million when fixed cost increases are included, we are proposing a budget that is focused on meeting our obligations for such things as faculty and staff pay and benefits, and costs associated with utilities, facilities maintenance and repair, new facility operating costs, and unfunded federal mandates. We have included a small request that enhances our ability to serve high priority state research and workforce needs more cost effectively.

On the capital side, we are asking for funds to complete the much-needed University of Alaska Fairbanks engineering building and to deal with deferred and current maintenance needs. In making these requests, our goal is to be prudent stewards of the valuable resources invested in us.

If anyone thinks we are burying our heads in the sand, rest assured that in addition to pressing for what we need, we will spend the next several months building a contingency budget, based upon input from the governor's office that we might expect a $15.8 million reduction which, when combined with fixed-cost increases, will mean a $40.6 million impact.

We will seek input from Alaska's public, K-12, corporate, and business leaders, as well as from the university community, to develop scenarios that focus on the state's highest priorities for UA in the coming years. Our goal in building this alternative budget is to ensure we continue to have those stories of success. Our students and their future opportunities in Alaska are the "what" we will continue to fight for.

Detailed information on UA's budget proposal is available online, where information on the contingency budget also will be available as the process unfolds.

Dr. Jim Johnsen is the 14th UA president. He also served UA between 1996-2008, in several executive roles including vice president of administration and chief of staff.

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

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