The last few years for the University of Alaska have been, to put it bluntly, pretty gosh darn miserable.
Faced with monumental cuts to state funding, former university leadership sought fixes that spurred the university community back to the time-honored tradition of circling the wagons and firing inward. Infighting, distrust and more infighting have marked the last few years at Alaska’s university system, hampering efforts to adjust to declining state funding, driving away students and decimating morale.
Interim University of Alaska President Pat Pitney said today that she hopes her time at the helm of the university will guide the system through the cuts to arrive at some much-needed stability and certainty for students and faculty while also restoring some unity and cooperation to the system.
At the forefront of her concerns is a compact the Board of Regents signed with Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy in 2019 to make stepped cuts over three years to the University of Alaska’s state funding. The compact has already dropped the state’s annual support for the university by $50 million (which is on top of several pre-Dunleavy years of cuts) with another $20 million cut set for next year.
“We’ll have a smaller footprint, but post-compact what I’m striving for is a commitment of stability that the Legislature and administration sees that we’ve sized down and are less dependent on general funds,” she said. “That we go forward with stability and investments in whatever key programs the state sees that are the next step.”
Pitney took over the role as interim president after the resignation of former UA President Jim Johnsen, who left amid a near-revolt from faculty following efforts to consolidate the university. She previously served in leadership at the University of Alaska Fairbanks before leaving to work for Gov. Bill Walker and later as the Legislature’s finance director.
As for the consolidation, Pitney said there’s no plans to do so, adding that such talks created uncertainty for students considering enrolling in the University of Alaska’s campuses.
“I believe the state is served well by the three accredited universities. … A merger is not being considered,” she said. “One of the things that drives enrollment is certainty. Because we’re heavily dependent on tuition revenue, we need to create certainty for the entire system and there was talk of consolidation created uncertainty and I want to create certainty and trust and confidence. That’s how our universities will succeed, with the trust of the communities that our programs are here and here to stay.”
She acknowledged that the recent years have created “an environment of shooting in,” and said she hopes that shelving talks about consolidations and mergers will help. She said it’s understandable that people would feel under attack amid talk that their programs could be taken over by other campuses.
“There has been an environment where it’s been threatening to people and people pull into their core and protect their core and put their head down,” she said. “So, my approach is to say, ‘I need everybody in the institution to be part of the solution. Yes, it’s going to be smaller and there’s going to be places where we have to reduce and we will reduce but there are many places in this institution that we need to have and need to preserve. … Those programs are solid and are going to stay because the state needs them.”
She also noted that while campuses may have duplicate programs, such as the engineering programs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Anchorage that each have different focuses, they’re not always the same and a simple reduction isn’t realistic.
As for the budget, Pitney said COVID-19 has created some $15 million in additional unforeseen costs but that the decline in enrollment hasn’t been as steep as initially anticipated (about 8% instead of nearly 30%).
Looking ahead, she said the university has an important role in helping the state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic by giving people opportunities to learn new skills and train for new jobs to be prepared for when the economy begins to recover. She said she believes the University of Alaska’s system is critical to the overall health of the state and that’s why she took the job, which she’s agreed to hold for between a year and 18 months.
“It is so important to the state and I have invested so much of my life in the university,” she said. “Looking at the issues that the university was facing and how important it is for the future … I thought it was important for me to step up and serve. There’s urgency. There’s no doubt that the university must change within the next 12 to 18 months. I felt like I could help bring the university down to a slightly smaller footprint that has a solid core foundation from which it can continue to respond to the highest state needs in terms of workforce but also be in a position to really serve the state while it’s going through this economic downtime. Now is the time for people to using the university. While jobs aren’t going 100%, use the university to spend your time being productive and being ready for the jobs when the do come back.”