UA officials hopeful after a year that was the ‘toughest on record’

UA President Jim Johnsen speaks to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

ANCHORAGE—This week marks the anniversary of not one but two disasters to hit Alaska’s higher education system: The 7.1-magnitude earthquake that hit the Anchorage area and the inauguration of a governor keen on gutting state funding for the University of Alaska.

The latter has had far more serious impacts on the university system, leaving lasting scars not just to the university’s funding but to the university’s reputation. The year has been marked by uncertainty, infighting, several credit downgrades and a decline in enrollment north of 10 percent.

Still, University of Alaska officials struck an optimistic tone in front of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce today. University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen and University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen delivered a business-centric message about the university’s role in a Alaska’s economy and how it’s adapting to meet new challenges.

“Our strength is demonstrated by our ability to make it through the toughest (year) on record in many ways, foreshadowed perhaps by that earthquake this time last year, but brought about directly by a proposed draconian state budget cut,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen thanked the business community for helping advocate as part of the UA Strong campaign, which was spun up to combat Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s veto that brought the one-year cut to the university to $135 million. The Legislature, unable to override the veto, replaced the funding in a new budget passed this summer and the governor ultimately agreed to a $75 million $70 million cut to be doled out over three years.

The reduction spared the university from the most disastrous of cuts, and Johnsen said the university is taking advantage of the breathing room. The university has, for now, backed away from a proposal to consolidate the university under a single banner, a move that many feared would erase the strengths of the system’s individual campuses.

There will still be significant cuts, including to academic programs, but that the university will also be proactively investing in its strengths while also looking for new revenue, such as what Johnsen described as “modest adjustments to tuition” and monetizing the university’s assets by either selling or leasing properties.

Johnsen likened the changes to what a business might do in a similar situation.

“As most of you would do in your businesses, we’ll dig deeper in order to invest in strategic priorities. We can’t simply and only sit back on our heels and take reductions,” he said.

Some of those investments, he said, will be focused on developing Alaska’s workforce and helping commercialize research done at the university system. Sandeen highlighted recent investments by Providence to invest in rural health care as well as investments for the campus’ journalism program.

Johnsen said he was optimistic that the university, the state and the federal delegation have reached a solution to the university’s lackluster land grant. Previous attempts to give the university land ran afoul of the Alaska Constitution’s prohibition on dedicated funds, leaving the University of Alaska near the bottom in terms of land to develop.

As for tuition, Johnsen said there’s work underway to reconsider the university’s tuition structure and allow for more variability between campuses and programs. He said that currently the university tuition is competitive with comparable universities, but that community campus tuition is far higher than the comparable national average.

University campuses are also in the process of considering tuition increases.

The day’s message was specifically tailored to the Anchorage business community, with Sandeen highlighting the role the University of Alaska Anchorage has in preparing many of the people in the audience and their employees for work.

“We are really part of the fabric of this city,” she said.

She said the funding reductions—along with the bad press—really cut the legs out of the progress the University of Alaska Anchorage was making. She said the news scared away many potential students and upended many things but said that the university is still teaching and still working to help the community.

Moving ahead, both Sandeen and Johnsen said it will be important for the university system to be vigilant about spreading good news while combating the bad. Sandeen touted a recent study conducted by Georgetown University on the return on investment in college education, which put UAA in the top 15 percent of the 4,500 universities studied.

They said they also need to work on combating long-standing misconceptions about the university—like the apparent difficulty in transferring credits—as well as continue to advocate on the legislative level.

“Those conversations with legislators are especially valuable,” Johnsen told the audience to a laugh.

Why it matters

The University of Alaska system is still in a precarious spot, stuck between the realities of budget cuts and the fierce independence of the campuses. The push for consolidation was met with near-revolt from university faculty before being set aside, dealing a blow to Johnsen’s leadership.

Meetings like today are important in making the case for the university’s long-term value to Alaska’s economy and business sector, which ideally will translate into support at legislative budget time. The outpouring of support this summer was remarkable and certainly helped stave off the worst of it.

Still, the university is still facing dramatic cuts over the next few years and those cuts will reach into the system’s academic programs. Just how any of that takes shape has yet to be seen, but having buy-in from both the external and internal communities will be critical if it’s to succeed.

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