Johnsen: No easy choices for University of Alaska budget

UAS Technical Education Center by Gillfoto (Gillfoto / CC BY-SA (

The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents is set to hold one of its most consequential meetings next week, where regents will take up several controversial cost-cutting measures that would overhaul Alaska’s higher education system.

The biggest proposal is some form of a integration of the Juneau-based University of Alaska Southeast into either the University of Alaska Fairbanks or the University of Alaska Anchorage, saving more than $15 million depending on the extent of the change. The regents will also be making decisions on whether to phase out dozens of academic degree programs and whether to spend from savings.

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said cuts to state spending and the impact of COVID-19, which has created new costs and driven down enrollment, have put the University of Alaska system in a major budgetary hole.

“The budget gap is very sobering,” he said, explaining the latest push to come up with cost-cutting measures for the University of Alaska. “These options would provide real cost reduction and looking forward in both small and large ways could transform the University to make it stronger.”

He said the anticipated gap in the fiscal year starting on July 1, 2020 is $24.8 million and somewhere between $11.3 million and $36.3 million in the following fiscal year. He said it’ll take time to implement the decisions made at next week’s meeting because of requirements to teach out students currently in the affected programs and said that’s why it’s important they start moving sooner rather than later.

Johnsen acknowledged the backlash to last year’s push to consolidate the University of Alaska in the face of a massive cut in state funding made by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto pen, which was ultimately tabled amid accreditation concerns and a compact that eased the cuts. He said, though, that the Board of Regents is grappling with the issues, especially since COVID-19 has driven down enrollment numbers.

“COVID is magnifying this very significant budget challenge we’ve got and in fact that there is no clear, dependable bridge in FY 22 from FY 21, so that’s where there’s a big sizable gap,” he said. “The board is now much more clear that it has to make decisions a year to two years in advance before we actually are able to realize those cost savings. … I think the board’s seeing that and I think that a difference this time, too, is they’re looking at options before getting pinned down to any particular option. It’s a more open conversation at this point and really up to them to decide whether to continue looking at something, to do something or to set something aside.”

He said the specifics of what consolidating the University of Alaska Southeast into another campus will mean and how much it will cut from the budget depends largely on the board’s actions. He said consolidating administration would save just a few million while a more aggressive consolidation pushing many courses online and focusing in on specific UAS strengths such as teaching, mining and fisheries programs could lead to a more significant savings, but also a significant change for students.

Online courses would be a significant part of a more aggressive consolidation plan and Johnsen said UAS already delivers about half of its credit hours via online courses. He said it’s likely that similar online courses would also be deployed at community campuses, likely leading to the reduction of teaching faculty at the system’s community campus system.

“If this happens, and I don’t know if it will this is absolutely up to the board, and the board decides a light degree of integration then you won’t find a large savings, you’ll still have lots of faculty and lots of staff participating in the education process at UAS,” he said. “If, however, the board elects to move in a direction that would generate more cost savings that would mean fewer faculty, fewer staff needed at the campuses in Southeast Alaska, that’s when you’re going to save substantially more money.”

He said the elimination of some 50 academic programs, which is the culmination of a process started during last year’s budget process, would only save about $4.5 million. It underlines how difficult the process ahead will be, he added.

“In terms of the $26 million, it’s going to be a heavy lift when you look at what the universities went to on the academic side to get to $4.5 million and of course all the anguish are feeling to get to that, imagine what it’ll be like to get to $26 million,” he said. “I’m confident that the universities can accomplish that, but they’ll be hit with some very, very difficult decisions.”

The move to fold UAS into another university was met with shock and swift opposition from Juneau and UAS faculty, who said gutting the university would gut the city.

“In order to meet the diverse needs of our state, we need to keep our university in our capital city,” Heather Batchelder, a professor at UAS and the chair of the system-wide Faculty Alliance, told Alaska Public Media. “There’s been so much uncertainty, and then the pandemic on top of that. So we are exhausted, but we are not defeated. And we will not give up and we will never stop fighting for our three separately-accredited universities.”

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