Robust university vital to Alaska

Alaskans are asking important questions about budgets, expenditures, investments, services, taxes and credits. They all boil down to two questions: What kind of Alaska do we want to live in, and how will we pay for it?

Our elected officials must answer these questions. They will arrive at the answer with your input during the legislative session. Here's why the University of Alaska should be at the top of your list when you contact your legislators: UA can and does make a critical difference to the state's social and economic well-being; and further cuts will significantly reduce UA's ability to do so and will have long- lasting impacts.

A strong educational system provides opportunities for Alaskans. By 2025, 65 percent of the jobs in our economy are projected to require some postsecondary certificate or degree. The last time this was measured, Alaska was at 37 percent. If K-12 and UA can prepare Alaskans for these jobs, Alaskans will fill them. Otherwise, skilled employees will be imported from outside.

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While preparing Alaskans for the workforce is important, it's not education's only purpose. High educational attainment is associated with more income, a stronger and more diversified economy, better health, more civic engagement, communities that are more attractive to families and business, lower rates of incarceration, stronger families, and increased success for our kids.

The foundation of our political system is an educated citizenry. That's one of the reasons why we have invested in public education. The Alaska Constitution includes commitments to a strong public education system and to the University of Alaska as foundations for our state.

What the founders knew then is even more true today — it takes a great university to build a great state. With a strong start and generous funding by the state over the years, the university has become a world class powerhouse for discovery, learning, and public service. UA is the largest university in Alaska, the most affordable university in the nation, and the top university in the world in Arctic research.


With superb faculty and staff at our three universities in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau and our 12 community campuses all across the state, the university is the "go to" higher education institution in Alaska.

But over the last three years, the support from state government has been cut severely. In fiscal year 2014, the university received $378 million in operating funds from the state. In fiscal year 2017, that number is down to $325 million, a reduction of $53 million, or 14 percent. As a result, there are 927 fewer faculty and staff on our campuses today than 3 years ago, 50 fewer academic and degree programs, larger class sizes and declining enrollments. Decreases of this magnitude impact services and the facilities that UA can provide to students, while increasing costs to those same students. Unlike many state agencies that provide services, students can and will choose to go elsewhere if we cannot meet their needs here.

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The governor has asked the Legislature for level funding next year for the university, $325 million. We appreciate that support. But that number maintains a cut of 14 percent from 2014 at a time when the need for higher education has never been greater. As a result, the board of regents has proposed a budget of $341 million. That's an increase over the current year, but it's still a 10 percent cut from three years ago.

The regents' plan is to increase investment in student recruitment, retention and completion; increase graduation rates; focus on programs and services that prepare Alaskans for work in the health care and education workforce, and continue support of our world class and Alaska relevant research, with its whopping 410 percent investment return to the state. The regents' budget focuses on preserving critical services while downsizing in a responsible way.

UA has already responded by developing more high-quality online programs, by increasing collaboration across our campuses, streamlining and reducing administration, investing in campus safety, and partnering with school districts to improve student readiness.

UA is also vigorously pursuing a fix to our longtime land grant deficit so that we can generate revenues from our own lands. Only the University of Delaware got a smaller land grant than UA!

The UA state budget is now being considered in the Legislature. The House Finance Committee is looking at the $325 million figure, a cut of 14 percent from 2014. For context, the cut is on par with eliminating the equivalent of almost two of the University of Alaska Southeast, with its fiscal year 2016 $27 million budget. The Senate Finance Committee plans to reduce an additional $16 million to $309 million, a cut of 18 percent from 2014. When added to fixed cost increases, even a maintenance budget is a significant additional cut.

From its founding in 1917 to today, UA has enabled Alaskans to build Alaska. It has done so through high-quality, affordable and accessible academic and vocational programs. As we answer the questions — what kind of Alaska do we want and how will we pay for it? — the University of Alaska is a wise investment in developing our state's talent. It's the single most important factor in building a competitive and sustainable economy. And it's critical to our quality of life.

I hope in the coming days you take the time to communicate with your legislators your support of a sustainable fiscal plan for Alaska, which includes support for a UA that is vibrant, strong, and able to prepare Alaskans for a bright future.

Jim Johnsen is president of the University of Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer's 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.