The announcement earlier this month that University of Alaska President Pat Gamble will retire in June comes at a challenging time for the university system.
No one can begrudge President Gamble his decision, of course. He will have served the University of Alaska five years at the time of his departure. That service follows his full life of public service, including nine years as president and CEO of the Alaska Railroad and a distinguished Air Force career from which he retired as four-star general and commander of all U.S. air forces in the Pacific region.
One of the principal achievements of his tenure atop the UA system is the Shaping Alaska’s Future initiative, which began in October 2011. University officials held more than 80 listening sessions with Alaskans with students, faculty, staff, alums, elected officials and others to produce a document that aims to ensure the institution “is serving the learning, research, economic, social and cultural needs of Alaska and Alaskans.”
The effort, now completed, was important for the university. (The final report can be found online at www.alaska.edu/shapingalaskasfuture.)
However, producing — and sustaining — a university that serves Alaskans well requires a commitment not only from the leader of that university but also from Alaskans and their leaders in the state capital.
That’s the challenge confronting the university system now. The budget news out of Juneau, where the new governor and his staff are preparing for the January state of the next session of the Legislature, is grim.
The price of oil has fallen precipitously this year, from $104.98 on Jan. 2 to $58.42 on Wednesday, the latest date listed on the Alaska Department of Revenue website. Oil revenue accounts for about 88 percent of the state’s general fund revenue, so it should come as no surprise that Gov. Bill Walker is sounding pessimistic yet realistic about the state’s financial situation: “You can’t bring down the revenue by 40 percent and act like it didn’t happen,” the governor said at a Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce gathering earlier this week.
But the governor and legislators must be careful with regard to any budget cutting directed at the university system. While it is unreasonable to argue that the university should be immune to the state’s fiscal ailment, it would be folly to approve budget reductions that substantially weaken what has become a strong and well-regarded institution.
The next University of Alaska president will need to be someone who can forcefully make the case for adequately providing for the university. Leading a university isn’t a simple task, but it is a little easier to do in times of plentiful resources.
This is not such a time. And there’s no telling when it will change for the better.
Facing an uncertain fiscal future isn’t something new for the University of Alaska. It was back in January 1998 that then-UA President Jerome Komisar, in a news release announcing his retirement after eight years on the job, referenced declining state funding.
“Diminishing state resources has been the great disappointment of the last several years,” President Komisar said at the time. “You cannot build the university the people of Alaska want and deserve without a greater commitment of state resources.
“The university’s strength lies in its exceptionally skilled, learned and energetic faculty, staff and student body,” he said. “The challenge of the next decade will be to provide the multiple resources necessary for them to do their best work.”
And that remains the challenge today — for the university, for its next president, for Gov. Walker and for the 60 members of the Alaska Legislature.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,