UA president assures longevity while arguing to keep state education funding
The state Senate Finance Committee heard from both Gov. Dunleavy's budget team and University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen on Tuesday regarding the governor's proposed budget for fiscal year 2020.
In the proposal, the governor suggests a massive cut to education, with the biggest blow toward the University of Alaska which is looking down the barrel of a $134 million reduction.
"I'm not going to negotiate," Johnsen told the committee. "I'm here to advocate the regents' budget for what the regents believe is necessary to provide higher education from occupational endorsements and associates degrees all on up through doctorates here in Alaska."
Senators tried to soften the governor's blow by trying to gauge an amount the University of Alaska could work with.
"Have you had any time to look at or study what would be acceptable?" Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, asked. "I hear you clearly saying 41 percent, not going to go there, might even spiral down and make it worse. Is there a level that you have looked at, you go, 'we could sustain this,' that would be a compromise?"
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, also questioned Johnsen's unwillingness to budge.
"Why aren't you willing to help us help you make sure that those cuts are somewhat more acceptable than they are right now? Because, right now, I tend to agree with the administration," Olson said.
Johnsen pointed out that over the past five years the university system has had a rough road dealing with cuts on a yearly basis.
"We're at a place now, in many areas, where there is no further room," Johnsen said. "In a quality academic program or a vocational program, anything, you've got to have critical mass to have quality. And, we are getting to a place across the state where that critical mass is — we may have even crossed the line in some areas, which causes me a great deal of concern."
Dunleavy's budget committee wants to reduce the amount the state spends per student. On Wednesday, state budget policy director Mark Barnhill said the committee relied on two sources of data to make its decision regarding UA funding: the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, which compares state funding across all states for state funding education institutions, and the National Center of Education Statistics.
"The university that has the highest percentage of state support is the University of Puerto Rico and they get 74 percent of their budget from state appropriations," Barnhill said Tuesday while testifying before the Senate. "The University of Alaska Fairbanks comes in third with 40 percent."
The University of Alaska is a land-grant university, designated by a state Legislature or Congress to receive the benefits. Barnhill said there are a number of land-grant universities that exist and thrive with smaller percentages of state support.
"For instance, Washington State University, 20 percent of their budget is from the state," he said. "Oregon State University, 16 percent of their budget is from the state. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 13 percent of their budget is from the state. Michigan State University, 11 percent of their budget is from the state. University of California, Davis, 9.5 percent of their budget is from the state."
However, Johnsen says the university is still waiting for what it was promised decades ago. He said the university never received the full 360,000 acres allotted through the original 1915 land grant and that it's working to acquire the land it's owed with help from the state and the federal delegation.
Roberta Graham, associate vice president of the Office of Public Affairs for the university, provided historical documents Wednesday stating the lack of land is impeding the university's ability to generate additional revenue.
"The university continues to request assistance from the state and the Congressional delegation to fix its land deficit. Gaining the lands UA has been promised in a permanent land endowment will help generate future income and over time, moderate our reliance on state general funds," an annual report for fiscal year 2018 states.
If the University of Alaska is required to make the full cuts proposed, the next question is how would they begin to make up the difference.
Barnhill suggested the university turn to donations from alumni, among other sources.
One senator noted it wasn't quite fair to compare UA to other universities with deep-pocketed donors.
"In the same vein as comparing us to other states, fair point, won't debate that, but we don't have any Tim Cooks or Jeff Bezos or a Steve Jobs on our alumni boards, yet," Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, said. "So, they are big foundation donors to their universities."
No matter what happens, university president Johnsen said the school would not go away.
"We've been here 100 years and we've been through rough spots over that period," Johnsen said. "We'll be here in 100 years and there will be many rough spots."
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