Last week, the University of Alaska faced a barrage of skepticism from legislators unlike any the institution has seen in years. In hearings by the House Finance Committee’s subcommittee on the university budget, chairwoman Rep. Tammie Wilson put forth a mammoth cut that would have represented a loss of nearly a fifth of all state funding. She and other members of the majority told university officials to justify the state money being spent on all university functions outside of basic classroom instruction. Their explanation must not have been satisfactory, as the subcommittee voted to send forward a university budget with $50 million in cuts from last year’s funding level, an amount that would hit the institution like a sledgehammer as it enters its 100th year. In the hearings, Rep. Liz Vazquez said the university hadn’t done enough in its budgeting to prepare itself for the oil price collapse now hampering state revenues. But if legislators want an answer for why the university wasn’t better prepared for less funding, they need look no further than the nearest mirror.
The governance of Alaska’s university has long been an arrangement causing friction in the halls of the Legislature. The Alaska Constitution established the Board of Regents as the governing body of the University of Alaska. But in practice, the Legislature holds considerable sway over the university’s direction, because it holds the purse strings for the state funding that makes up close to half the institution’s budget. What’s more, legislators have often included intent language in the university’s budget allocation in a bid to restrict or control how some funds can be used. The university has been forced to rely on state general funds far more than it should have in the decades since statehood, as legislative misadventures from 1959 onward resulted in the institution never receiving more than a fraction of the land grant that would help it be a self-sustaining organization.
Even the land grant travesty and the Legislature’s control over a substantial chunk of the university budget would be far less problematic were it not for legislators’ tendency to micromanage the university’s mission.
Certainly, oversight and direction can be beneficial. One example of this was the Legislature’s recognition in the mid-2000s that the state was in need of more nurses and engineers, when they directed the university to focus resources on producing more of each. Accordingly, the Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses expanded the pre-medical nursing program and engineering programs. The university was successful in attracting students to the programs, which — particularly in the case of engineering — highlighted the need for new and expanded facilities to provide a modern education.
In pursuit of the goal of producing more engineering graduates, the Board of Regents planned for new engineering buildings in Fairbanks and Anchorage. The state’s burgeoning oil wealth and the concentration of legislators in Anchorage made the $78 million UAA engineering building a relatively easy sell — its construction began in 2013 and was finished two years later, complete with an enclosed skybridge to the adjacent Health Sciences building.
The Fairbanks facility, however, was another matter. Legislators chose to allocate $109 million to an Anchorage sports center the Board of Regents didn’t see as needed or wanted — thanks to an existing deferred maintenance backlog of hundreds of millions of dollars, the regents were painfully aware of the ongoing operating costs a new building entailed. The Legislature opted for the sports arena anyway, fully funding it and providing piecemeal funding to the much-needed UAF engineering building. When the oil crash hit, construction of the half-finished engineering building stalled; the UAA arena was already complete. The Legislature has made no plan to provide funds to finish the engineering building, an asset that could help students immensely.
Now, with budget pressure coming from all directions, some legislators are heaping scorn on the university for not being more prudent with its funds. The truth of the matter is that the Board of Regents’ priorities have been far more prudent than those of the legislators who now, in an ironic twist, are cutting university athletics funding, threatening to shutter the costly sports center that they so eagerly voted to fund only a few years prior.
Legislators should know better than to give the university lectures on fiscal responsibility.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,