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Alaska Legislature

In Senate hearing, University of Alaska president tries to hold the budgetary line

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: February 19
  • Published February 19

Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower left, talks with University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen following a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed sweeping cuts to state support for the University of Alaska, but in testimony Tuesday to the Senate Finance Committee, the university’s president warned that the governor’s cuts will create a ripple effect and an even greater fiscal shortfall.

Last week, as part of his proposed state budget, the governor suggested reducing state support for the university from $327 million to $193.1 million, a drop of 41 percent.

The governor’s proposal allows the university to make up that loss with tuition boosts, donations or additional research grants, but Johnsen said the cuts will make it impossible to keep what the university already has, let alone find new revenue.

“If our core funding from the state is reduced, as is proposed by the governor, I would actually predict an additional reduction,” Johnsen said.

He said potential students and researchers will “vote with their feet” if the university is required to cut research support and raise tuition.

“If I just applied the 1:2 ratio of general funds to non-general funds, we’d be talking about overall, a $400 million reduction,” Johnsen said, referring to the university’s standard funding.

The University of Alaska’s total budget, before the governor’s proposed cuts, stands at $888.8 million, according to figures supplied by the university.

Other universities are increasing their budgets and resources at the same time the University of Alaska is cutting its budget, he said. Over the past few years, the university has seen enrollment decline along with its budget.

According to Johnsen’s presentation to lawmakers, enrollment peaked at 21,674 full-time students in the 2011-12 academic year. That declined to 17,555 students in the 2017-18 school year, the latest for which figures are available.

The governor’s proposed budget cuts would require the university to double tuition to break even, and that projection only works if students don’t leave because of the higher costs.

If the university chose to cut instead of raising tuition, it would trigger another ripple effect, Johnsen explained.

Between 2014 and 2018, the university’s figures show 1,283 job losses, the equivalent of 15 percent of the university’s workforce.

Without tuition hikes, Johnsen said the state can expect at least that many job losses at the university in the coming year. After those losses, there will be fewer classes at the university and less reason to attend, Johnsen said. Researchers, with less support, will have less reason to stay.

“There’s no question it will have a negative impact. People vote with their feet,” he said.

Johnsen on Tuesday appeared to be entrenching to defend the university system. The university system’s board of regents has requested $351 million in state support, an increase of $14 million from the current year. Under questioning from lawmakers, Johnsen said, “I’m not here to negotiate. I’m here to advocate for the regents’ budget.”

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, asked why Johnsen isn’t willing to compromise.

“Why aren’t you willing to help us help you?” the senator said, insinuating that if they are able to identify the university system’s priority programs, senators might be more able to protect them.

Some senators suggested they might seek to target university administration during the budget subcommittee process. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, will be chairman of the university’s budget subcommittee.

After the meeting, Johnsen explained his steadfastness.

“I can’t negotiate my demise. Which limb am I going to give up?” he said, implying that further cuts represent amputation. “For me, limbs are people and students."

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