Despite strong headwinds, a glimmer of hope for the University of Alaska

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It was only two years ago that the University of Alaska’s fortunes reached their lowest ebb in a generation. In February 2019, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s controversial austerity budget had the institution facing a massive $130 million cut — 40% of its state funding. The survival of NCAA sports didn’t look realistic; the complete shutdown of at least one of the system’s three main campuses looked like a serious possibility — if not, all three campuses would be husks of their former selves.

In 2021, though the system has weathered its fair share of storms, there’s reason to be thankful. The Board of Regents was able to reach a compromise with Gov. Dunleavy that reduced the planned cuts by about half, to $70 million — and spread over three years instead of all at once. All three campuses are still moving forward, despite serious disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic that forced them to adapt swiftly or hemorrhage students. And even the athletics cuts have been moderated, thanks to a small army of community boosters and fundraisers who helped raise outside funds to offset the programs’ spending. Interim President Pat Pitney, a steady hand on the tiller, has committed to another year leading the university back onto steadier ground post-pandemic. There will still be many hurdles for the system to overcome, but it has overcome those it has faced in recent years surprisingly well.

Make no mistake, the University of Alaska has not emerged from the dramatic cuts unscathed. About 50 programs have been cut since the three-year compact began, and state cuts to the institution started before Dunleavy took office — a total of $130 million in the past eight years, according to Pitney. The cuts have included hundreds of positions across the university’s campuses. And the COVID-19 pandemic put about a 10% dent in enrollment.

But there is also positive progress for the university. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has authored a bill that would, at long last, fulfill the university’s long-unfulfilled land grant, transferring up to 360,000 acres of land that would count toward the — also unfulfilled — statehood land grant for Alaska. Ownership of that land could prove crucial for the institution to better pay its own way as the state transitions away from a government funded principally by oil revenue. Interim President Pitney has quieted campus uproar over former President Jim Johnsen’s plan to pursue single accreditation, embracing the three-campus model and bringing stability to a system direly in need of calmer waters.

The COVID-19 impact on the university, which could have been far worse if not for campuses’ swift pivot to distance delivery of courses, also appears to be fading. In a recent meeting with the ADN editorial board, Pitney said both the University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Fairbanks are seeing increases in enrollment in the spring semester now underway. Applications to programs statewide are up 9.2% over last year, according to university officials, with the biggest increase at UAA.

The university is by no means safe from further institutional turmoil — the final fiscal year of the budget compact, with $20 million in further state cuts, begins in July. And it’s unwise to declare the major effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over until we’ve achieved herd immunity through vaccinations, which isn’t likely to happen until fall at the earliest. But a combination of steady guidance from Pitney, capable leadership at the campus level, and great flexibility on the part of the university’s professors, researchers and students, has the system in a far better position today than seemed possible two years ago. Given the university’s role as an economic engine for the state and an agent that can help us pivot its economy to respond to a changing world, that’s a good sign for Alaska’s future.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the Anchorage Daily News editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.