Published in the Northern Light Feb. 10, 2004
Notwithstanding Alaska’s financial straits, members of the Alaska Legislature expressed dismay over the failure of various governors and former Legislatures to adequately fund the University of Alaska system.
State Rep. Eric Croft and Sen. Johnny Ellis both fault Gov. Murkowski for failing to live up to his promise of a $10.5 million UA funding increase.
“We feel like we were lied to,” Croft said.
For the past 18 years, with Alaska’s resource-based industry in decline, the UA budget has been shrinking, with the exception of one large increase initiated by former Gov. Tony Knowles. UA is already well behind other comparable states in breadth and variety of programs.
University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Edward Lee Gorsuch said the university is even more vital in Alaska than in other states, whose universities produce an average of 17 percent of their research and development activity. Alaska, conversely, gains from UA a minimum of 51 percent of its R & D ventures.
“While we’ve had increases in funding, it hasn’t kept up with inflation or fixed-cost increases,” Gorsuch said.
Rep. John Coghill acknowledged the grim circumstances but could hazard no guesses as to what the Legislature would do about it, pointing to a $400 million state budget deficit and woefully under-funded essentials such as the Department of Corrections and Child Protective Services. He said that every option, including broad-based taxes and using the Permanent Fund Dividend, would be discussed during the current session.
The majority of UA Funding comes from federal grants, alumni endowments and private-sector contributions. However, receipts each year fall tens of millions of dollars short of operating requirements, making the university a perpetual supplicant to the governor and the Legislature.
Large legislative appropriations have provided for the construction of a new library, parking garage, eco-systems bio-medical laboratory and purchase and renovation of the University Center. Those substantial investments, along with the Alaska Scholars Program, have increased enrollment.
However, more students necessitate increased funding. Although the fiscal turnaround has in recent years produced a 56 percent increase in the number of high school graduates who attend university in-state, enrollment gains could quickly evaporate if the state does not sustain the development of UA.
UAA Budget Director Pat Pitney recently disclosed that Gov. Murkowski’s proposed budget leaves UA $10.5 million short of its operating needs for Fiscal Year 2005. The university has also requested $40.3 million, mostly for the construction of a state-of-the-art science center.
Another unmet university need is $8.8 million for increased retirement system obligations, which has not yet been requested.
Bridging the shortfall would require prying the money out of other budget allocations. Program cuts have not yet been planned, said Gorsuch. In January, he ordered a freeze on hiring, faculty travel and large equipment purchases until each school and college has balanced its own budget.
Dean Thomas Case of the College of Business and Public Policy said he will balance the 2005 budget by adjusting class size and possibly eliminating some staff positions.
College of Education’s 2005 budget has been balanced with no program or job cuts by consolidating some of the program courses, said Dean Mary Snyder.
The School of Nursing has been and will be on budget indefinitely thanks to large contributions from health-care industry partners, who are facing continual vacancies and wish to employ graduates, said Tina DeLapp.
The budget for the School of Social Work is on track for 2005 with no program or job cuts, said Dean Elizabeth Sirles. The budget has been balanced through continued aggressive pursuit of grants and the elimination of duplicate expenses by having students download all syllabi and handouts from Blackboard.
The School of Engineering reports deficits in 2004-2005. While no programs are on the chopping block, course offerings may have to be trimmed, including a possible reduction in the availability of courses within the academic year.
The Community and Technical College is on budget, but Dean Jan Gaylor said fiscal constraints for 2004-2005 have required the elimination of the Adult Learning Center and a proposed reduction in administrative positions. Dean Gaylor says the college is “not hurting but cautious.”
Dean Theodore Kassier of the College of Arts and Sciences and Dean Cheryl Easley of the College of Health and Social Welfare were unavailable for comment.
Associate Vice Chancellor Soren Orley attributed the current crisis to increases in salary and retirement benefits for university faculty. Regular increases are standard, but the threat of a strike in 2003 prompted an expansion of benefits, largely to offset increased costs of medical care and retirement benefits.
Croft asserted that every other state in the nation has invested generously in university systems, and with good reason; post-secondary education has historically been one of the most dependable and beneficial investments for economic growth. This causal relationship was echoed by Kassier, who noted in a recent Anchorage Daily News Compass article that an educated population “can support and attract diversified growth and development” as well as drawing “students, tuition and research dollars from throughout the United States and the rest of the world.” Kassier went on to write that if UA is not well funded, students are much more likely to go outside the state to study, and to seek employment elsewhere.