What’s Next For The University Of Alaska System?

4:42 minutes

a building to the left of a snowy road with a view of a city in a valley below. there is a red and blue overlay across the entire image
University of Alaska Fairbanks, one of the three universities that are on track to be consolidated into a single accredited university after budget cuts. Credit: Shutterstock

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Wesley Early, originally appeared on Alaska Public Media.

The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted 8 to 3 to move towards consolidating the entire university system to a single accredited university. The board discussed several proposals for the university system well into the afternoon in Anchorage Tuesday. 

Governor Mike Dunleavy’s budget cuts to the University of Alaska total about $136 million, or roughly 41 percent of state support.

The plan regents adopted is to reorganize the University of Alaska from three separate, individually accredited universities to a single accredited university. UA President Jim Johnsen endorsed the proposal. Johnsen says the new model would streamline curricula and student services as well as create a single college for each major field of study throughout the university system. Johnsen says the plan saves money by eliminating a lot of administrative costs.

“I think the essential functions, especially those that are academic and student-facing… yes they need to stay out there in close proximity to students,” Johnsen said. “But backroom functions, we don’t need three or four different approaches, processes, systems to do lots of things that really don’t add to the student experience.”

The second proposal would have established a more cooperative consortium model for the university system while retaining the three universities.

The three universities would make reductions to staff and faculty, administrative services, athletics, travel and other budgetary items in order to meet those individual cuts.

The proposal was put together and endorsed by the three chancellors of the universities. Their argument was while each university would take large cuts, they would continue to maintain their ties to each individual community. UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield says there would be a renewed focus on collaboration between the three campuses.

“The integrated consortium model would build on retaining three separately accredited universities and a commitment from the chancellors and all of those involved with the leadership at those universities for dramatically enhancing the collaboration of academic programs, and student services, shared business services,” Caulfield said.

The regents and President Johnsen expressed skepticism that an increase in collaboration would be as smooth as the chancellors proposed. Johnsen says the board has called for increased collaboration in the past, with little success.

A third proposal regents didn’t vote on came from the Dunleavy administration’s Office of Management and Budget. The proposal would take place over two years and make targeted cuts to all three universities, including cuts to research, athletics and the university-run Museum of the North. It would also cut university support to public radio station KUAC, which operates within the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The proposal drew criticism from UA’s accrediting body, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. The commission sent a letter to the Board of Regents on Monday, describing the plan as an “additional and, perhaps, inappropriate strongarm ‘guidance’ of the Alaska Governor.”

The NWCCU says that the Dunleavy administration proposal could affect future accreditation for the University of Alaska.

OMB Policy Director Mike Barnhill told regents the proposal was a way for the state to enter the discussion on how to cut the university’s budget.

President Johnsen says under any plan, it’s likely that the cuts will have a ripple effect on enrollment and research. He says both are avenues that could result in less money for the university as a whole.

A task force has been put together to determine how to move forward with the single university model.

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Segment Guests

Wesley Early

Wesley Early is an education reporter for Alaska Public Media in Anchorage, Alaska.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to check in on the state of science. 

SPEAKER 1: This is KERA News– 


SPEAKER 3: St. Louis Public Radio– 

SPEAKER 4: Iowa Public Radio News– 

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. This spring, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy used a line item veto to dramatically cut state funding to higher education, including the University of Alaska system, which now has come to terms with a cut of some 41%. That’s over $130 million. 

There is still the possibility of the state legislature adding back some of the funding, but officials don’t have much hope for that. And with the university’s fiscal year already starting, you have to make hard choices. Joining me now to talk about the situation in Alaska is Wesley Early, education reporter for Alaska Public Media in Anchorage. Welcome, Wesley. 


IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you back. Let’s talk about it. You just got back from a Board of Regents meeting. How is the university facing this level of budget cut? 

WESLEY EARLY: So, yeah. The Board of Regents meeting was on Tuesday, and that was following a declaration of what’s called financial exigency, which is kind of like bankruptcy for a university. And what it basically says is that the university can kind of bypass regulations that would protect people who have tenure. And so it allows for sort of an expedited firing process. 

And then at the Board of Regents meeting, what they decided to do was streamline the current University of Alaska structure, which is a campus in Fairbanks, which is in the middle of Alaska, and then one in Anchorage, the biggest city in sort of South Central Alaska, and then the University of Southeast in the capital in Juneau. And so that is all going to be streamlined into one University of Alaska to sort of get rid of administrative costs and other things. 

IRA FLATOW: So the engineering department might be in Anchorage, the biology department might be in Fairbanks, things spread around. 

WESLEY EARLY: Yeah. Right now, there are several university colleges of education. There’s one in Fairbanks and one in Anchorage. And one of the things they’re suggesting is sort of just consolidating them so that the University of Arts and Sciences would be in one spot, and Engineering would be in one spot, and yeah 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Big budget cuts– is there any hope that the money will get put back? 

WESLEY EARLY: Well, the legislature has been really divided on this, at some points, literally split between two different legislative meeting sessions. And there really requires a 3/4 vote of the legislature to override the governor’s vetoes, and it doesn’t look like they have that. I don’t think there’s a lot of confidence about that. There’s hope that the governor could restore some of the funding. He’s indicated that he would put $38 million back in for a two-year reduction plan instead of a one-year reduction plan. 

But the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget proposed very concentrated cuts, targeted cuts to certain departments, which really– it technically falls under the purview of the Board of Regents. And some people, including the university’s accrediting agency, has called that move kind of a strong arm move from the governor to sort of direct cuts when it’s not really his purview. 

IRA FLATOW: For all these dramatic cuts, aren’t there a lot of faculty tenured and would be protected from being fired in this case? 

WESLEY EARLY: Well, not under exigency, which they just declared last week. So that basically allows the university to fire tenured faculty. 

IRA FLATOW: Are there trickle down effects that these cuts are going to have? 

WESLEY EARLY: President Jim Johnson of the university certainly thinks so. So not only are they going to have cuts to state funding, but there’s just this uneasiness among students, and staff, and faculty. I was just talking to a former teacher yesterday, who said, yeah, all of these economics professors and business professors are saying they’re leaving. I’ve talked with student leaders who are very involved in the process on campuses. And they said they wouldn’t recommend it to a student coming up because they just don’t know what programs are going to be there. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s so often you don’t get students, you don’t get tuition. It just is a positive feedback loop that gets worse. Thank you. We’ll be watching it with you, Wesley. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. 

WESLEY EARLY: Thank you, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Wesley Early, education reporter for Alaska Public Media in Anchorage.

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