UA president pushes back against proposed budget cuts

The University of Alaska president is pushing back against proposed budget cuts he says would have major impacts on the university system.

In a press conference Tuesday, UA President Jim Johnsen criticized budget cuts proposed by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, last week.

Wilson proposed dropping the university budget to $288 million at a budget subcommittee of the House Finance Committee. The proposed budget has enough money for student instruction and athletics but eliminates funding for research and outreach, like cooperative extension programs and the marine advisory program.

Wilson's proposal is far less than the governor's proposed budget of $335 million for the university system, which is already a 4.5 percent decrease from last year.

Johnsen, who's set to travel to Juneau Wednesday to begin meeting with legislators, told reporters Tuesday that he understands university budgets will be reduced. At the Board of Regents meeting last week he unveiled "strategic pathways," a plan intended to restructure the university system in light of the state's budget situation. The plan lays out a two- to three-year process of reorganizing the university to focus on the individual strengths of each campus. Much of the proposed process involves discussions with stakeholders. It does not outline or identify any program cuts.

He said Tuesday the plan operates under the principle that state funding would drop steadily, not precipitously. He said Wilson's proposed budget is such a precipitous drop it would have "huge" ramifications for the university system.

"A dramatic reduction of this scale will be disruptive rather than constructive in my view," Johnsen said.


Johnsen estimated that the proposed cuts could equate to some 600 positions being eliminated.

"Those aren't incremental numbers any more," he said. "Those go to the heart of programs and schools and other units of the university."

In an interview Tuesday, Wilson said her proposed $288 million budget is only a starting point for discussion.

Wilson said she believes research is an important part of the university system, but that she wants more information to make sure it's being used effectively.

"I'm still concerned that the university wants to continue to be three universities with a statewide administration over all three," she said. "There are smarter ways to do that and to be smarter with the funding that we have."

Wilson also pushed back at the notion of a two- or three-year strategic pathways timeline.

"I don't think we have two or three years to wait and see what the university may or may not do," she said. "It's a concern that they don't see an immediacy in terms of how funds go."

Johnsen said Tuesday he understands that all legislators are worried about the state's fiscal situation, but that hopefully strategic pathways can be "a light going forward, a rational way to strengthen the university system."

"In every meeting, I'll pull it out and use it and hope to God they are persuaded that this is a good path for the university and state," he said.

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.