Wednesday, October 16, 2019

How Budget Cuts and Political Shenanigans Destroy a University

If you work in higher education or value its importance for innovation, economic development, knowledge, arts, and culture, what is happening in Alaska should cause you great concern.

Here's the short story.  The Alaskan state budget is being slashed to the bone, with significant cuts in many areas, including to the University of Alaska.  Initially, the cut was to be a draconian $135 million (about 40%), leading to a declaration of financial exigency by the University of Alaska Board of Regents in July.  Fiscal exigency is an emergency declaration rarely used by universities to enable rapid cuts that include the closure of programs and campuses and the dismissal of tenured faculty.  Such a declaration is a massive blow to the reputation of a university.

Subsequently, $110 million in state funding was restored, yielding a cut of $25 million, which represents about 8% of the state funding for the University of Alaska system (see University of Alaska regents cancel declaration of 'financial exigency').  This led the Board of Regents to cancel their declaration of financial exigency, although cuts are still needed to deal with the current budget cut and to prepare for cuts that continue to be proposed for future years.

Regardless of where the budget goes in those future years, the uncertainty, instability, and political shenanigans are already having a large, measurable effect on the University of Alaska.  The Anchorage Press reported on October 8 that fall semester enrollment in the University of Alaska system is down 9.3 percent.

Quoting the article, "This is a direct result mainly of publicity and anxiety among students over huge, 42 percent budget cuts proposed last spring by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.  Dunleavy later backed away from this, agreeing to more modest reductions, but by then a lot of the University's students, faculty, and staff had decided to look elsewhere." On the plus side, the freshman class at the University of Alaska Anchorage was actually the largest ever, but this increase is not sufficient to overcome the losses of continuing students.  Thus, the University of Alaska faces the triple whammy of declines in both state funding and tuition, as well as the specter of future budget cuts.

And so the rubber meets the road.  Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist at the International Arctic Research Center of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, tweeted a list today programs with "low enrollment or high costs" at the University of Fairbanks that are undergoing expedited review. 

This is a mind-boggling list. Imagine the University of Alaska-Fairbanks without mining engineering, geological engineering, petroleum engineering, electrical and computer engineering, or computer science.  Imagine dealing with a rapidly changing Arctic (and Alaska is on the front-line of climate change) without expertise in atmospheric science, oceanography, and fisheries.  Imagine a state with a rich cultural heritage of Alaska abandoning logistics, Alaska native languages, Alaska native studies, and anthropology. 

Some of these departments and areas of expertise are also at the University of Alaska Anchorage, but that's along ways from Fairbanks.  To provide some perspective, imagine if Southern Utah University were to close their Computer Science and Information Systems, Engineering and Technology, and Physical Science departments. 

Further, these departments are being reviewed because of their low enrollment or high costs.  Typically this means the ratio of state support per student credit hour or per degree.  This is a very common metric used by university bean counters.  However, it does not really quantify the value of the department.  Specialized fields are important for innovation, economic development, or culture.

The University of Alaska system has already suffered damage through declined enrollment and a tarnished reputation.  Faculty departures and declines in funding will take more time to emerge, but will likely come if they haven't begun already.  It will take years, possibly decades to recover from this, with implications for the Alaskan economy, arts, and cultural heritage. 


  1. Apparently, the governor, Mike Dunleavy is to blame. From his wikipedia page: "On June 28, 2019, Dunleavy exercised line-item veto authority as governor to make cuts of $433 million, including a cut of $130 million (41%) of state contributions to the University of Alaska.[10] The same day, he also vetoed $335,000 from the budget of the Alaska Supreme Court, saying it was a punitive measure because the Court had upheld the constitutionality of abortions."

  2. I have family employed by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF). This process has been very stressful for them. We should know soon if they make it through the cuts.

    As for a climate/dividend tie-in, Alaska's example is why I don't like any carbon cap-and-trade-and-*dividend* system, as I believe the dividend system will never go away, even after the carbon does. Voters won't be happy with temporary dividends that shrink each subsequent year. They will want a permanent full check. That can ruin funding mechanisms, just like how funding Alaska's full oil dividend is ruining Alaska higher-ed right now.

  3. Not to mention the cut of the UAA ski team!!