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University of Alaska should be free for Alaskans

  • Author: Chancy Croft
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 9
  • Published September 9

UA Board of Regents chairman John Davies and Gov. Mike Dunleavy sign an agreement for a 3-year, $70 million budget cut to the University of Alaska, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 at the governor's conference room in Anchorage. Dunleavy had originally vetoed $130 million in state funding for UA for the current fiscal year that started July 1, atop a $5 million cut approved by the Legislature. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In the mid-to-late 1800s, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone battled each other to be Prime Minister of England. Once, Disraeli was asked to explain the difference between “misfortune” and “calamity.” Disraeli responded, “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But, if someone dragged him out, that would be a calamity.”

The Dunleavy/Davies Pact agrees to a $70 million reduction in University of Alaska funding. This reduction by fiscal 2022 changes Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s misfortune of a July veto into Board of Regents chairman John Davies’ August calamity.

In fiscal 2014, state funding for UA was $378 million. In the five years from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2019, state funding for UA was reduced $51 million, leaving a balance of $327 million. The result of the Dunleavy/Davies Pact, added to prior reductions, would reduce total state funding of UA to $257 million, a total reduction of $121 million. That is an average of about $10 million per year.

In the three years of the Dunleavy/Davies Pact, the total cut will be $70 million, or slightly more than $23 million per year. Doubling the rate of decline is supposed to save our great University of Alaska?

Former Gov. Wally Hickel is famous for saying, “you cannot cut yourself into prosperity.” Saving is important; a technique for efficiency, not a goal nor a vision.

Unlike in almost every other U.S. state, UA is almost the only university, public or private, in the entire state. If it is not adequately funded, higher education in Alaska is not adequately funded.

The first Alaska Territorial Legislatures, beginning in 1913, were noted for three particular accomplishments: giving women the right to vote years before the U.S. did; recognizing indigenous people as citizens, again years before the U.S. did; and creating the University of Alaska.

UA opened in 1922. When we have the 100-year celebration, will we remember UA’s great accomplishments, or will we wonder what would have happened if there had been no 2019 calamity?

Well, the fat’s in the fire and what do we do? The Alaska Constitution says the Legislature shall “establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the state.” It is the only directive in the entire constitution that mandates any expenditure. The only mention is public education. Why is public education so important?

I grew up in Texas and only attended public schools, including the University of Texas at Austin. Later I attended the University of Alaska Anchorage. My idea of a Permanent Fund, which I helped pass in the 9th Alaska Legislature, was inspired by the Texas Permanent Fund, which supports the Texas University system.

Ross Perot ran for President in 1992 and gathered the most votes ever of any independent candidate. In the 1980s, according to Tom Luce, he articulated a vision that Texas, his home state, had to diversify its natural resource-based economy to prosper in the 21st century. He knew the economy of the future would be predicated upon human capital and that our economy would thrive on services as well as goods, and that would require an educated workforce. Thus, he led the nation’s first state-driven education reform movement. His plan was adopted by the Legislature and followed by five governors of two political parties for 25 years. As a result, the Texas economy was prepared to diversify and boom in the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s.

If you cannot turn adversity into an advantage, you are always controlled by the past, particularly calamities.

In 1998, I voted with all other members of the UA Board of Regents to hire Mark Hamilton as UA President. Mark became a great president. Wanting to inspire students to attend UA, he created the UA Scholars Program, which admitted students in the top 10% of their graduating class to the university, tuition-free. The result was electric. Students wanted to attend UA and the best scholars were leading the migration.

I suggest we turn the “calamity” pact into an advantage. Our university is cratering; students and professors are discouraged. We must change that.

I suggest we implement the Constitution’s mandate maintaining public education. Make UA tuition-free for Alaska residents. It would certainly benefit students. If Texas is any indication, it is also good for business. Maybe we would have to start with the first two years and then expand to a full four. Either way, it would be a magnet attracting students to UA.

Other states are investigating free higher education. Alaska could lead the way as it has in the past.

Chancy Croft was a member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents from 1995-2003. He was a Democratic member of the Legislature from 1969 to 1979. He served as Senate President from 1975 to 1977. He is now a private attorney living in Anchorage.

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