What others say: Pay attention to higher education plans

  • Sunday, September 11, 2016 9:56pm
  • Opinion

The heavy turnout for a forum on the University of Alaska budget last week on the UAF campus was heartening. It was also frustrating.

As UA President Jim Johnsen reminded the audience on Thursday in the Wood Center Ballroom, the state’s higher education system has received cuts from the Legislature for three years in a row. But it wasn’t until cuts grew deep enough that university sports were put on the table as a potential target for reductions that members of the greater Fairbanks community came out to register their outrage in numbers. While it’s good to see people becoming engaged in the budget process and supporting UAF athletics, there are a great many changes being contemplated at the university that go far beyond sports. And those changes, many of which will affect the university’s educational mission directly, are equally worthy of community attention and concern, if not more so.

It’s not hard to understand why sports have received more public attention than the academic or administration-focused aspects of the Strategic Pathways framework. It’s hard to gauge the many impacts of a potential move to single accreditation, for instance, but everyone can visualize what a winter without hockey, basketball, volleyball, cross-country running and skiing, swimming and rifle matches would be like. Even the economic impacts of athletics are more concrete to community members — it’s easy to imagine the considerable negative impact on the borough budget if the Alaska Nanooks hockey team weren’t providing substantial revenue for the Carlson Center.

But just because the impacts of other realignments and cuts at the university aren’t as easy to grasp doesn’t diminish their importance. Substantial shifts have already quietly begun taking place as tenured, long-established faculty members have seeped away from several departments, replaced by non-tenured faculty and adjunct instructors. Like hiring freezes and mandatory waiting periods to fill positions, this movement is a short-term solution that will have negative effects in the medium to long term if not addressed. Smaller, less capable departments attract fewer students, meaning less revenue for the university and increasing the potential for programs to eventually fold entirely. That means importing more skilled labor from Outside instead of training the workforce Alaska needs — whether welders, firefighters, nurses, teachers or engineers.

Cuts to research could have even greater negative consequences. Many of the university’s most prestigious faculty members do research that brings in massive federal grant awards to the state to study issues endemic to Alaska and the Arctic. Because of their research providing an incentive to remain at UAF, they are able to share their expertise with students both in classes and in providing connections to high-paying jobs when those students graduate. If state funding were cut, not only would the university lose the federal grant awards and the research that provides insight into Alaska phenomena and challenges, it would also likely lose those faculty members to poaching from other colleges. The university would lose, the students would lose and the state would lose.

The bottom line is this, whether in athletics or any other aspect of the university’s budget: We get what we are willing to pay for. State oil revenues no longer allow us the luxury of having a world-class university we don’t have to fund personally. So now, as with many other aspects of state government, we must ask ourselves: What is it that we want from our university, and how do we plan to raise the funds to make it happen?

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Sept. 4

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