Late last week, University of Alaska sports enthusiasts got good news: Proposed cuts to the cross-country skiing programs at the Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses, as well as track in Anchorage, would not go forward. For fans of the programs, dozens of whom had called, written or spoken in person with members of the university’s Board of Regents, it was a huge win. For the university as a whole, however, the picture remains unclear. Hamstrung by a land grant that has never been fully realized, the system is dependent on the Legislature for funding. As the state’s revenue deficit has continued since late 2014, legislators who once did their best to avoid cuts to higher education have started to turn the screws on the institution and ratchet down funding. The university, established in the Alaska Constitution and a central part of constitutional convention delegates’ vision for the state’s future, deserves better.
Critics of the university’s funding level will often make comparisons to other states, where state government funding of higher education is more modest. But this comparison is faulty for one big reason. Though the university is billed as a land, sea and space grant institution, the central piece — the land grant — has never been fully conveyed. A series of more than a dozen efforts came largely to nought during the past 100 years, with the university receiving a total of 112,064 acres, less than every other state except Delaware. As a percentage of total state lands, Alaska’s situation is even more shameful — the land grant represents just 0.11 percent of the total land area granted to the state in 1959.
In fairness to the state, it’s not just the Alaska government that has promised land to the university. Land grant promises started in 1915, with a federal grant of about 268,800 acres. Less than 9,000 acres of that grant were ever received before it was nullified by Alaska statehood in 1959. Recognizing that the federal government had made promises it hadn’t kept, Sens. Frank and Lisa Murkowski, as well as Rep. Don Young, introduced multiple bills between 1997 and 2005 that would have matched a state grant with an equivalent federal land allotment of as much as 250,000 acres, but none were successful.
The closest the state has come to fulfilling its land grant promises was a series of efforts, one of which passed into law in the early 2000s before it was struck down by the Alaska Supreme Court as an unlawful dedication of funds.
The political hurdles, as well as the tendency of the state and federal government to point fingers at one another, have thus far defeated efforts to give the university enough land to manage its own affairs without as much direct support from the state. But that goal is getting more and more urgent with every day the state remains in a revenue crisis. Dependent on the state for funding and without land to support itself, the university under the current framework has little recourse but to make program cuts when the budget knives come out. Those cuts hurt students, athletes, faculty, staff and Alaska’s industries that depend on skilled graduates from the university.
Alaska’s future requires a strong university, and stability for the institution requires a sizeable land grant that has repeatedly been promised and never delivered. Until that happens, cross-country skiing and all of the university’s worthy programs will remain under threat.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Nov. 13, 2016