Changes on the way for the University of Alaska system, as sketched out in a memo from UA President Jim Johnsen last week, look to be seismic. Just how much they will affect the state — and Fairbanks in particular — was demonstrated on the News-Miner’s front page Friday. On a normal day, the news that the university was opting not to hire any of the four finalists for the vacant University of Alaska Fairbanks chancellor position would have been the day’s top story. But the magnitude of the changes planned for the university, of which holding off on hiring a permanent UAF chancellor was just one part, were sufficient to push that news off the front page altogether.
The road ahead for the university won’t likely be smooth. If the university were a jet airplane, President Johnsen would be attempting to land it with one sputtering engine. The students, staff, faculty and many members of Alaska’s communities are along for the ride, hoping that the situation is handled with expertise that will minimize the damage.
Though the magnitude of the cuts to the university’s budget — as much as $50 million of an allocation that stood at about $350 million last year — is apparent, details of the university’s plan to deal with that cut haven’t yet been finalized. It’s possible money will be restored to the university budget before the Legislature gavels out of session, but with the session’s end weeks overdue already and the new fiscal year starting July 1, the university can’t afford to sit on its hands in the meantime and is moving ahead with what it considered a worst-case scenario when the session started.
If at all possible, the members of the Legislature should restore some of the university’s allocation this year, if for no other purpose than to afford a little more time for President Johnsen and the Board of Regents to put into place the changes and cost-cutting measures planned under the university’s Strategic Pathways plan. The items the university is pursuing — single accreditation, potential reductions in athletics programs, combining university departments and centralizing course offerings — will be hugely disruptive to not only the university’s day-to-day business but also could have significant negative impacts on classroom instruction. It’s hard to maintain a high-quality education experience when a department is moving across campus during the academic year, for instance, and the only professor who taught a handful of classes required for a major is being forced into an early retirement.
Many of the changes the university is considering could indeed make the system more efficient and cost-effective. Reducing duplication of offerings across campuses is an appropriate goal, and some of the university’s departments, such as the nursing program through UAA, show how that goal can be achieved with minimal disruption to students. But there’s no denying a 14 percent systemwide cut delivered mere weeks before the new fiscal year starts will have a major, immediate negative impact on university campuses and the communities they serve.
The university should by no means be immune from the cuts taking place throughout the state budget. But when tampering with the gears of the machinery that provide for the state’s future, a solution focused on a budget number rather than outcomes for students and the state could be damaging to a generation of Alaskans and have downstream effects far into the future. Given the magnitude of the changes the university is being told it must make, it would be only fair for the Legislature to afford the university funding that will allow them the time to make those changes responsibly.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,