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Alaskans need to pony up for university sports

  • Author: Jo Heckman
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 21, 2016
  • Published November 21, 2016

UAA ski team assistant coaches Sara Studebaker-Hall (nordic), left, and Anna Berecz (alpine), right, attend a rally supporting the skiing programs at UAA and UAF on the north lawn of the Loussac Library on Nov. 10. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

The mood was celebratory as the Board of Regents mingled with faculty, staff, students, university skiers and their community supporters at a recent gathering in Fairbanks. Earlier that morning, athletes and supporters had been heartened when President Jim Johnsen announced he would recommend the university not eliminate the skiing, indoor track or any other athletic programs after the NCAA's decision not to take action on a waiver request that would have streamlined athletic programs.

Hoorahs were heard from Fairbanks to Anchorage and along the ski trails and ski slopes in between. What may have been lost in the excitement was Johnsen's message regarding the critical need for private financial support for those programs.

Rather than eliminating the athletic teams, he said: "I will suggest we tap into the large outpouring of support from our student athletes, our communities and our alumni … given the volume of voices of support for athletics and the passion of their arguments, we will recommend instead (of elimination) to engage with these supporters to invite and encourage their financial support for the athletic programs they value so much."

This is a critical point. We need all those who are so passionate about University of Alaska programs to help support them. Ahead of our meeting in Fairbanks, the other members of the Board of Regents and I received letters and emails from more than 400 people; dozens more called in to express their support during our public testimony telephone call-in session, and we received a copy of an online petition signed by more than 5,000 individuals. I was impressed by the many stories from these supporters about how hard our student athletes work, how many remain in Alaska to start their lives and better our communities, and how devastating it would be to eliminate these teams from the university system.

The ski community pledged to step up and support the UAA and UAF ski teams, and athletics in general, by raising money to offset program costs. The showing of private support was a critical part of our decision to keep the programs intact and is absolutely vital to the long-term viability of these and all of the university's athletics programs.

During our November meeting we also discussed the need to create budget equilibrium for athletic programs. For comparison purposes, 20 percent of the cost for research programs is subsidized. Research grants cover the remaining 80 percent. In academics, we subsidize 70 percent, while tuition and fees cover the remaining 30 percent. With athletics, we subsidize approximately 80 percent of the cost of programs. Through engagement with the community, we need to bring that percentage down to at least the same level as support for our academic programs.

So to those of you who voiced your support for our athletic programs, whether skiing or otherwise, I ask that you now help us by making a gift and encouraging others to do the same. Philanthropic support will be vital for many university programs in the future, so we ask that you consider supporting the areas at the University of Alaska that you are passionate about.

Tax-deductible gifts to the University of Alaska can be made through the UA Foundation. Donations to support specifics teams can be made at Donations may also be mailed to the UA Foundation at 1815 Bragaw St., Suite 203, Anchorage 99508. The foundation's gift planning experts can provide a wide variety of ways to give, including gifts of stock and planned gifts. For more information, call the foundation at 907-450-8030 or email

While the threat of losing these popular programs may be off the table for now, the need for private support is greater than ever as the university faces many difficult decisions in the months and years ahead. I sincerely appreciate the outpouring of support for our student athletes but I urge you not to be complacent. Please act on the support you pledged. I will look forward to seeing how the community comes forward to support its university. 

Jo Heckman was appointed to the University of Alaska Board of Regents in 2011 and is the immediate past chair.

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