One line on page 121 of Governor Dunleavy’s veto of the state budget has provoked some confusion about what the proposed $130 million dollar cut to the University of Alaska means. At first glance, it might look like the campuses of the University of Alaska Southeast had been spared, but that’s not the case at all.
Right after describing the 41-percent cut in funding to statewide services and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses, the item reads: “Funding for all of the community campuses, including University of Alaska Southeast remains unchanged.” That’s deceptive, says Jill Hanson, Assistant Director of Business Services and Special Projects, at the Sitka campus of UAS.
“People don’t realize how interconnected we are,” Hanson said. “It’s not like the community campuses are going to ride.” The Sitka campus depends on statewide funds for many services and administrative oversight, so the budget cuts will have an impact in Southeast, too.
The Sitka campus depends on statewide services for day-to-day operational needs and administrative support. The funding that supports those programs is on the chopping block alongside the University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Fairbanks campuses. Distance learning — which has become a cornerstone of Alaska’s university system — is one of many resources that will be threatened if the governor’s cut goes through.
Every campus in the University of Alaska system uses the same learning management system to host online classes, supported through statewide funding. If the veto goes through, campuses across Alaska will have to figure out how to fund distance learning curriculum themselves. In Sitka, anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of students are distance learners.
“That could be a significant cost to us, whereas before we had a statewide mechanism that paid for it,” Hanson said.
Jim Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska described what the veto means for the university statewide in a video released shortly after the Governor’s announcement.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “There’s no question about it.” From administrators in Anchorage and Fairbanks right down to Hanson herself, everyone has to start taking steps to manage costs and thin out budgets immediately.
The biggest immediate cuts will be in travel, hiring, and procurement. Most university staff and employees statewide received furlough letters from the University of Alaska last Friday. Those letters give sixty-day notice for an obligatory 10-days of leave without pay during FY2020. Alongside the furlough, the UAS Sitka campus will have to make tough decisions about what programs and resources to cut.
For Sitka, that’s likely to mean a major restructuring, says Hanson. “We’re going to have to go through a series of a process of making determinations of where those cuts are going to have to happen,” she said.
Hanson doesn’t know yet where that money would come from. If the cuts do pass the legislature, the Board of Regents plans to declare financial exigency statewide. That will mean a “rapid discontinuation of units and programs starting this Summer & Fall; that will disrupt the education of current students and community services.”
Hanson says that could interfere with many students’ education. Financial exigency relieves the university of their obligation to provide students the resources to finish their degrees. “Students may not have a chance to finish their program[s],” Hanson said.
Until the legislature decides whether or not to override the veto, the university is in a holding pattern, working to plan ahead where it can. For students, staff and faculty, that means a lot of uncertainty.