On Oct. 8, 2019, I broke out the Scotch. The proverbial “break-out-the-Scotch moment” I described in my July 13 op-ed on “Alaska’s endless summer of exquisite torture” finally came after the board of regents determined on Oct. 7, 2019, that they would allow the University of Alaska Fairbanks to pursue the reaffirmation of its accreditation as UAF and not some visionary “New University of Alaska” requiring the absorption of the University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Southeast. The fight to “Save the Seawolf” (and the Nanook, and Spike the Humpback Whale) was won.
Of course, any relief we might have felt at the mere survival of UAA was tempered by the knowledge that there were still $45 million in further cuts to come under the “budget compact” signed by the governor and the chair of the board of regents last August. Although the governor’s proposed budget has restored funding for many programs, the $25 million cut allotted to higher education in Alaska this year remains. And given the fight that is expected to take place over various other problems with the proposed budget, it seems highly unlikely that legislators are going to undo these cuts.
One must remember that since 2015 state support of higher education in Alaska had already been reduced more than $50 million prior to the budget compact. We’ve eaten $25 million this year, too. UAA has been able to absorb its portion mostly through pulling everything from the hockey team to student services back onto campus and leaving unfilled the ranks of staff and faculty who have left in pursuit of more stable prospects. The $45 million cut still pending will leave UAA seriously diminished. It’s no longer a question of stopping the extinction-level-event budget we have long feared and been bracing ourselves for. The asteroid has already struck.
As part of the board of regents’ decision in October, the chancellors of UAF, UAA and UAS were authorized to conduct expedited academic program and administrative reviews at their respective institutions to figure out how to deal with the consequences of these cuts. The various degree-granting academic programs at UAA have submitted their reviews. These will now go to the leadership of the various colleges before being passed along to the UAA provost for recommendations to the board of regents on what academic programs will be selected for deletion.
This process has been all the things UA President Jim Johnsen’s hasty, ill-advised proposal to consolidate the three universities last summer was not. It has unfolded on a rapid but manageable time frame. It has been data-driven, if not data-informed. It honors the role of shared governance and will receive wide comment and feedback from faculty and students. It has been transparent. And it has conformed to all the relevant board of regents policies, collective bargaining agreements and regulations of our accreditors.
The result will be awful.
Academic programs currently being taught at UAA will be selected for deletion. The positions of tenure-track faculty will be terminated. And even though UAA recognizes and will honor its obligation to “teach out” those students currently enrolled in those programs, there is no guarantee that the process of getting as many students as we can onto the lifeboats before these programs sink will be orderly or that all will necessarily be saved.
While Gov. Mike Dunleavy has much to answer for in this, the situation is hardly entirely of his own making. Those $50 million-plus in cuts approved by legislators previously weakened higher education in Alaska. Considerable blame can also be apportioned to statewide leadership, which has persistently pursued a policy of employing the crisis as a means to gain greater levels of centralized control over the system rather than seeking a path to build more efficient, more vital and more responsive institutions at the local level.
I have no doubt that when the initial recommendations become public knowledge, there will be similar cries of outrage and indignation as we heard last summer from those opposed to the Dunleavy cuts. I fear, however, that this comes too late. The damage already inflicted by years of cuts and the refusal to entertain serious proposals for reform may already have proven fatal.
Survival of higher education in Alaska now that the asteroid has struck is by no means assured.
Paul Dunscomb chairs the Department of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.