University of Alaska regents reacted with disappointment Thursday as president Jim Johnsen announced that the UA system will loan $2 million to the University of Alaska Fairbanks‚ Geophysical Institute to restart a defunct Air Force research installation.
“It’s a huge amount of money,” said regent Mary Hughes of Anchorage. “I’m concerned that we didn’t get a heads-up on this when it was happening.”
The High-frequency Active Auroral Research Project has since 1990 used high-energy radio waves to probe the ionosphere, a layer of the atmosphere between 37 and 620 miles above the surface of the Earth.
The ionosphere is critical to radio reception, and the military has long expressed an interest in understanding how this atmospheric region — which also hosts aurorae — affects radio signals.
The federal government has spent about $290 million to build the HAARP center near Gakona, but in 2013 the Air Force shut it down as part of cost-cutting efforts.
It was to be demolished in summer 2014, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, intervened and garnered a promise from the Air Force to delay demolition for one year.
That delay bought the university enough time to make a move, and the Air Force transferred all HAARP equipment with a small ceremony Aug. 11. The university has two years to obtain the HAARP site’s land, which would take an act of Congress.
The problem for members of the UA Board of Regents, the appointed governing body of the university system, was that the conveyance never came to them for consideration. The deal was signed by then-president Pat Gamble without consulting the regents. Gamble retired this summer.
“Basically, Regent Hughes, I was presented with this essentially as a done deal,” said Johnsen, who has been in office since July 28. “Given that, the importance of this and also the fact that we have leaders back in Washington, D.C., who have been helping us with this, I felt it was important to move forward with that.”
UA general counsel Mike Hostina said it was legal for the president to move forward without regents‚ approval because the arrangement yet doesn’t include the research center’s land. “If there would be a permanent transfer of the land … that would be the point at which there would be board acceptance of the land.”
Kenneth Fisher, a regent from Juneau, asked where the $2 million to restart HAARP will come from.
Ashok Roy, UA’s vice president for financial matters, explained that the money will come from various fund balances within the UA budget, and the Geophysical Institute will pay 4 percent annual interest on the sum.
In a subcommittee meeting later Thursday, Roy admitted he had not been aware of the loan until reading about it in the newspaper. “Moving forward,” he said, “there is no doubt that a better communication plan needs to be in place.”
Roy and Johnsen said the university expects researchers will pay for the privilege of using HAARP, one of only three such installations in the world. UA has similar arrangements with the Poker Flat rocket range north of Fairbanks and the research vessel Sikuliaq. If HAARP doesn’t pan out, the equipment at the multimillion-dollar facility will be sold to recoup the cost of the loan.
Nevertheless, Fisher said it was disquieting to have regents presented with a fait accompli when the university is under significant budget pressure. The Alaska Legislature reduced the UA system budget by $26.3 million this year, which included staff cuts and furloughs.
“(That) we weren’t notified was my primary concern,” he said. “The Board of Regents needs to have better knowledge of its finances.”