Voices of Alaska: University bears economic value for state

One of the most important parts of our future economy is our workforce, and the young men and women who are being educated and trained to join that workforce.

In spite of that fact, the Senate has proposed significant new cuts to the University of Alaska (UA) beyond those already imposed. How much? Over the last three years, UA budget cuts have totaled $53 million, which has resulted in significant change: 900 fewer employees than there were three years ago; 50 academic programs have been suspended or eliminated and fewer classes are being offered. The Senate is now proposing an additional $16 million reduction.

We all know that our state’s fiscal gap requires reductions and reorganizing how we deliver services to our residents. However, it takes time for organizations to make good decisions about how to reduce expenses without degrading the quality of the programs provided. Too much radical change will create uncertainty and drive young Alaskans outside to other colleges; they will be less likely to return to be our nurses, teachers, accountants and engineers. It makes much more sense to grow our own, right here in Alaska.

The Anchorage Economic Development Corporation with AK Common Ground held a community meeting in Anchorage recently to address the best ways to make Anchorage a great city in which to live, work and play. Many business people talked about the role that the university plays in providing the talent needed to make their businesses successful.

This is true across Alaska and will be essential to diversifying our economy over the next few decades. The Kenai Borough recognized this a long time ago when it dedicated a portion of its property tax to support KPC and gave land to the Soldotna campus. KPC helps both high school and college students get the training and the degrees needed so they can get good jobs and stay on the Peninsula if they choose to do so.

The university has been a leader in relevant research, particularly in Arctic research. From studying ocean acidification and its relationship to fisheries, to energy and economics and public policy issues, the world class research conducted at UA is a huge asset for Alaskans. After all, tech firms in the research triangles around the country are not there just by coincidence. They are in places like Raleigh, Austin, Madison and Palo Alto because of the universities that produce talented, well educated, innovative workforces. Research strengthens the training our students receive in labs and in classrooms, solves real problems we face in Alaska and contributes to Alaska’s economic development and diversification.

Last week, UAA held an Arctic Research Day on campus to share information about the wide variety of Arctic research being done Alaska. In early May, Arctic researchers and diplomats from around the circumpolar north will gather at UAF when the Arctic Council convenes to transfer the leadership of the Council from the United States to Finland. As part of the Week of the Arctic activities, global leaders, businesses, academics, diplomats and researcher will discuss the most critical issues facing Arctic nations. This is just one more demonstration of UA’s leadership in Arctic-related issues.

If higher education funding continues to be cut, Alaska will lose many of the talented faculty who have contributed to building the expertise and the respect that bring successful research grant opportunities and partnerships to our state.

Please tell your legislators that you care about the university and the contribution it makes to our economy and our communities, and to fund UA at the budget level recommended by the Governor and the House.

Fran Ulmer is the former Lieutenant Governor of Alaska as well as a former mayor of the Juneau-Douglas Borough and has served as chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and as chair of the Arctic Research Commission.

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