As University of Alaska faces uncertain financial future, officials focus on supporting current students

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen delivers the State of the University address at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Juneau on Feb. 16, 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

In an appearance on Talk of Alaska Tuesday, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen continued his push for financial exigency for the university. The UA Board of Regents voted Monday to put off the vote to its next meeting.

In the face of an unprecedented cut from the state, University of Alaska staff, faculty and students have a high degree of uncertainty about their futures. President Johnsen says he isn’t getting much clarity from Governor Mike Dunleavy about how to move forward either.

“He didn’t provide any details,” Johnsen said. “Only a commitment to meet with us and work on a solution to this challenge.”

One big question facing university officials is whether to declare financial exigency, which would allow a more expedited process for cutting programs and staff, even those with tenure.

Johnsen says that when the university planned for reductions at the state level, exigency was “definite” with a $60 million cut. Governor Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes cut $135 million from the university system, a cut of 41% of state funding. The university system has already cut $51 million over the last four years, resulting in more than 1,200 layoffs.

The budget shortfall has brought up concerns about whether or not the University can maintain its academic accreditation. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the university’s accrediting body, sent a letter to the Legislature last week urging an override of the vetoes. Johnsen took a pregnant pause when asked about the potential loss of accreditation.

“I don’t believe it is going to happen. That is, if you will, the last straw,” Johnsen said.

The Anchorage campus was reaccredited last year, with distinction. Fairbanks has just begun its reaccreditation process and the Southeast campus is near the end of its review process.

Callers to the program brought up several proposals for saving money. One suggested that the university was spending a lot of money on buildings that weren’t maximizing their uses, such as the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage. Johnsen countered that the Legislature appropriates funds for university buildings, sometimes without a lot of input from university officials.

“It is legislators and others who are appropriating for those facilities for their own interests,” Johnsen said. “Often they meet the interests of the university and students in those communities. But it’s not all on us. And we’re doing our best with insufficient funds to even operate the facilities that we’ve been given.”

Another caller pointed to the high salaries for administrative staff within the University. Johnsen says that employees throughout the UA system haven’t had a pay raise in three years. He says UA system pay rates are below market value for the jobs. He added that he’s donated some of his own salary to a new scholarship fund designed to offset scholarships that haven’t been paid out to students due to legislative inaction.

While Johnsen expects university enrollment to drop in the face of economic uncertainty, he says the university has an obligation to teach-out students who are currently enrolled in programs.

“In order to maintain accreditation, which we strive to do whether or not we declare financial exigency, that teach-out obligation is there,” Johnsen said. “So students who are enrolled in a program who are majoring in engineering for example, we have a strong obligation to enable those students to complete their programs.”

As talks over program and campus closures continue, one caller asked Johnsen what the future of rural campuses looks like.

“I think we’re the University of Alaska, not just the University of the Big Cities. I think we’ve got to have a strong presence in rural Alaska,” Johnsen said. “What it looks like may be different going forward, but we’ve got to maintain a strong presence, particularly in hubs like Bethel and Nome and Dillingham, other communities.”

The Board of Regents is set to reconsider declaring financial exigency at its next meeting on July 30th.