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Cuts are endangering quality of education at the University of Alaska

  • Author: James Murphy
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 7, 2019
  • Published November 7, 2019

The Parrish Bridge connects the Engineering & Industry Building, left, with the Health Sciences Building on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

I have been a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage since 2006, and I am deeply concerned about the impacts that the budget cuts are having on the quality of academic programs. So far, the budget cuts have been managed to an unacceptably large degree by letting faculty leave and not filling their vacant positions. While that helps address the immediate budget problem, it is not strategic. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Unless UAA makes meaningful steps to stem the tide of faculty (and staff) departures, it will be more than a decade before the university recovers — if ever.

Let me give an example. Until the budget cuts started a few years ago, the Economics Department was thriving. It is ranked among the top economics programs in business schools worldwide. Research addresses many key issues facing Alaska today. Leading scholars from around the world actively seek opportunities to visit UAA to work with our faculty and engage with students.

Students get opportunities they would not have elsewhere. They’ve conducted research projects in rural Alaska and Kamchatka Russia and have published their undergraduate research projects in top academic journals — a rare accomplishment even for graduate students. Those who continue on to graduate school are attending the world’s elite programs (Oxford, Berkeley and Harvard, to name just a few), often with full scholarships, and others are working in key positions around the state.

Now, our faculty are being recruited by top universities. Kyle Hampton is a dynamic teacher who won the UAA Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. He was recruited by Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith to Chapman University, an elite private school in southern California. Matt Reimer is a star in resource economics. His research is published in top journals and he has raised millions of dollars in external funding to support his work. He is moving to the University of California Davis, which is one of the premier programs in his field. What is particularly remarkable is that, despite an offer from a great university, the decision to leave was not easy for him. We built such a strong program, that he actually preferred to stay at UAA. He is leaving in large part because the university is not even taking the easy steps needed to maintain good programs during these difficult times.

The remaining faculty are also being recruited and I am seriously concerned that they will be gone soon as well. They are pleading for reasons to stay — they love Alaska and the academic environment we built at UAA. They are award-winning faculty who are committed to the university’s success. But, after four years of major budget cuts and likely more in the years to come, morale is low and faculty need to keep their careers moving forward.

This problem is not unique to economics; it’s happening across the university. State support for the College of Business and Public Policy has been cut by nearly 40% over the past five years. The number of full-time faculty in the college has already dropped by about one-third and the exodus has only just begun. Anyone who thinks that the budgets cuts are not having devastating long-term impacts on our best academic programs is seriously misguided.

Despite the fiscal challenges, the university needs to find ways to strategically maintain and grow key programs and retain good faculty, so that when the dust settles, there is still a solid foundation upon which to build. Sadly, that is not happening.

James Murphy is the Rasmuson Chair of Economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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