Juneauites asked the University of Alaska Board of Regents not to merge the University of Alaska Southeast with one of the other two universities in the system in public testimony Tuesday evening.
UA President Jim Johnsen presented a merger with University of Alaska Anchorage or University of Alaska Fairbanks as one of three proposals for cutting costs in the system amid the economic fallout from state budget cuts and COVID-19-related closures, said soon-to-retire UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield.
At a May 13 meeting, Johnsen “presented a fairly grim picture of the University’s finances over the next couple years,” Caulfield said in a phone interview. “That combined with the compact agreement reached with the governor is bringing a $25 million (reduction).”
UA staff, students and alumni called in to express their concern over proposed cuts to the system and the future of the university. While many urged the Regents to preserve degree programs slated for cancellation, many callers also acknowledged the depth of the economic crisis UA is facing.
As part of his effort to reduce state spending, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced large cuts to the university system last year. After public backlash about the depth of those cuts, the governor and the regents in August agreed to a gradual, step-down approach reducing UA’s budget by a total of $70 million over three years.
The university took another financial hit when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world’s economy, sending students home and ending tuition, cutting off a major revenue source.
“It’s fair to say that’s of great concern,” Caulfield said. “I’ve voiced concern to the president.”
He added that a reduction in services at UAS would “significantly diminish what people in Southeast Alaska have access to through the University of Alaska.”
Not all the options being put forward by Johnsen involve merging UAS, Caulfield said, but they do involve deep cuts.
The regents will meet June 4-5, to weigh options for the system’s future, and are meeting with stakeholders in the weeks before the meeting, according to Robbie Graham, associate vice president of public affairs for UA.
“The board will be making tough decisions and wants to hear from as many people as possible. (Tuesday’s) public testimony is one of two opportunities for that to happen,” Graham said in an email. The next opportunity for public comment by telephone will be June 2. Email comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org at any time.
UA is looking at a $41-66 million gap in Fiscal Year 2022, according to a May 13, presentation Johnsen made to the Board of Regents Audit Committee.
“The Board’s challenge/opportunity is to consider transformational change needed to avoid decline and potential exigency in FY22,” Johnsen said in his presentation, “and to position the university to lead for the state’s future.”
Following that meeting, the Board of Regents Audit Committee asked Johnsen to come up with options for closing that gap, Graham said. Johnsen will present those options at the June meeting.
“The president is very careful to say he is not making a recommendation at this time,” Caulfield said.
However, the regents may not make a decision regarding UAS’ future at that meeting, according to Caulfield, but may ask for more information on one or more of the options presented.
But even during financial crisis, merging UAS with one of the other schools, “should be taken off the table for consideration,” according to Sol Neely, a professor of English at UAS.
A merger would have, “long-term repercussions on our university, community and region,” Neely said, and would “impoverish the resources” the UA system offered to the state.