Protesters gathered at the roundabout, hoping to catch the eye of their representatives in Juneau and Wasilla. (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

Lunchtime demonstrations might be growing into something of a routine in Sitka. Just last week, organizers coordinated a local chapter of a national day of action calling to close migrant detention centers. On Monday, some sixty-odd people gathered at the roundabout to protest Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes of over $400 million from the state operating budget. And for many of the people gathered, their concern was as personal as it was institutional.

Sol Neely is a tenured professor of English at the University of Southeast Alaska, Juneau. His wife expects to lose her job if the legislature does not override the veto. Despite tenure, he risks losing his position at the university, too. But he sees in the budget cuts a reflection of a more deeply rooted antagonism between the current administration and the university. Neely sees higher education as a place that teaches critical thinking and critical theory. 

“[It’s] exactly what [Gov.] Dunleavy and the national interests he represents want to destroy,” Neely said. “This is a death budget we have to call it what it is.”

Protesters wave signs, and hands, as cars honked in support as they drove around the roundabout. (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

That’s a sentiment and set of concerns shared by many involved in education in Southeast Alaska. X’unei Lance Twitchell carried a sign that read, in translation, “We don’t want the money to be cut. Money is good. Donna is terrible.” The sign pokes fun at Donna Arduin, the state budget director.

Twitchell is an associate professor of Alaska Native Languages at the UAS Sitka campus and is concerned about what the budget cuts mean for his job, and the kind of critical thinking that Neely talked about. “We’re very blessed to have students who want to challenge power structures,” Twitchell said. “All of that is going to shift dramatically.” 

X’unei Lance Twitchell, far right, was among several UAS Sitka professors and students who protested at the roundabout on Monday. (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

He’s also concerned about the longer term economic implications of a slashed university budget. Access to higher education correlates closely with higher incomes, and without access to affordable education, Twitchell worries for the future of the students he works with. “[The cuts] freeze the ability of people to increase their economic situation so the poor are more likely to stay poor and the wealthy will remain wealthy,” he said. 

And concern extends beyond the University of Alaska Southeast. Peter Vu works at Mt. Edgecumbe High School and for Outer Coast, a two-year alternative college based in Sitka. He says the students he works with are already starting to look elsewhere for higher education opportunities. Vu sees the cuts as an attack on critical thinking and a reflection of an administration that prioritizes short term gains for long term costs.

Forest Haven (in sunglasses) is a two-time grad of the UAS system, who is now working towards a PhD. “If this budget goes through it will dismantle our university system,” she said. (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

“If there isn’t a population of people there to protest or to offer more innovative insights, the [next] generation of students that will end up leaving Alaska if our university system isn’t well enough for them,” Vu said. “I think that’s scary.”

And just like for Neely, the cuts are personal for Vu. He wants to pursue a Master’s degree and to stay in Alaska. Now, he’s questioning the prudence of that decision. “I’m worried that if I were to enroll in a master’s program there wouldn’t be one by the time I finished,” Vu said. 

If the legislature votes to uphold Gov. Dunleavy’s veto, the Board of Regents plans to declare financial exigency. Normally, to meet accreditation requirements, universities have to provide the resources by way of instruction and support for any student currently enrolled in a degree program to finish that course of study. But financial exigency frees universities of that obligation, meaning students currently enrolled in degree programs could find their course of study cut short.

This concern that bridges the personal and the political contributed to the spontaneous energy of the protest. The timing, however, was no accident. Earlier in the day the Alaska legislature convened in a special session in two separate locations — the majority in Juneau, and a defiant minority in Wasilla. 

Outer Coast summer session students reminded passersby who to call and email. Carmen Simons, far left, is in Sitka for the summer from Brooklyn, New York. Simons is the son of public educator. “I know personally how important it is for a state’s university system to be protected,” Simons said. “It’s the foundation of almost all of its prosperity, it’s people, it’s ability to make change and progress as a group of people.” (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

The physical separation mirrors the ideological divide over state funding. Sitka Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins says the math does not look good to achieve the three-quarters majority needed to override any of the governor’s veto package. Kreiss-Tomkins thinks the legislature might spare a few programs in the line-item veto: Senior Benefits program and fish and game funding that brings in a 3-to-1 federal match. Kreiss-Tomkins called the veto of the latter “mathematically stupid.”

He sees about two-thirds of the legislature opposed to the governor’s aggressive approach. But a solid third has aligned itself with the governor, Kreiss-Tomkins said. “That one-third of the legislature is basically the Mat-Su Valley Republicans, and sort of honorary Mat-Su Valley Republicans,” he said.”

Arya Phillips is from Sitka and attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Phillips is very concerned about what the budget cuts mean for Alaska’s future. (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

While the governor’s budget decisions have sparked local protests across the state, the decision to veto was anything but local, according to Kreiss-Tomkins. He believes that the vetoes reflect how insulated this administration has become.

“All of these decisions were made from the top of the administration,” Kreiss-Tomkins said, speaking broadly. “The people who are actually running these programs and agencies — they weren’t consulted.”

For Sitkans like Peter Vu, the top-down decision hit home. “I felt like it was a death in the family,” Vu said. “It felt like I got sucker punched.”

Johnny Elliott just finished college and moved back to Alaska. He wants to live in a state and a society that values education. He worries about a future in Alaska where fewer people have access to higher education and universities are less able to support higher level research. (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

A similar protest in the capitol brought out 750 people. The legislature will hold a joint floor session Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. in Juneau, to consider overrides of the governor’s operating budget vetoes. Until then, many of the protesters will continue to call their representatives and send letters over the next few days, as Sitka prepares for more lunch-break protests.