By Jenny Neyman
Of the many forms of budget wrangling going on in Alaska these days, the University of Alaska’s challenge is a particularly difficult one — to handle an as-yet unknown deficit number in such a way that doesn’t put itself further in the hole by driving away one of its main sources of revenue — students.
“There’s a very strong commitment to quality, to access and to affordability,” said University President Jim Johnsen during a visit to the central Kenai Peninsula last week. “Those are the three criteria that we are focused on as we evaluate what we do and how we do it, academically and administratively.”
The University Board of Regents recently approved an operating budget for next fiscal year that includes about $378 million in state funding, up 7.6 percent more than last year. That’s including a 5 percent tuition hike approved in February and another 5 percent approved in November. Johnsen said it’s a lean budget that covers the university’s fixed costs, and he’s outspoken about the importance of fulfilling the university’s mission to offer higher education throughout Alaska.
“And it really, I think, has to do with meeting the state’s need for work force, contributing to economic development and diversification in our state, for producing an informed citizenry … and also in solving the state’s problems,” he said.
There are some options for generating more revenue. The University of Fairbanks is a world leader in Arctic research, for example, and there are opportunities for commercializing research as well as drawing more research funding.
Johnsen also advocates for expanding ties with the business community, both in terms of donations — especially with a higher education tax credit in Alaska that rewards businesses for donations to the university — and in terms of lobbying support.
“When we go to Juneau, they know why we’re there, but when, name the company, if they go and speak on behalf of the university, that’s invaluable for us,” he said.
Alumni should expect to hear more pleas for financial support, and a fundraising campaign is in the works.
At the same time, the university is preparing four budget scenarios to meet a range of potential cuts, from $15 million to $58 million.
“We expect budget cuts, and so pressure will definitely be on the university, ‘What are you going to do? How are you going to consolidate programs? What programs are you going to eliminate? What programs are you going to reduce? How are you going to rationalize your administration and bring those administrative costs down?’” he said.
Consolidation will be a big area of emphasis. The university encompasses 18 community campuses, three universities and a dozen learning centers in particularly rural areas of the state. Rather than shuttering sites, consolidation will be about operating more efficiently. At the universities, it will mean letting each site excel in its unique specialty, rather than duplicating them, so UAA will be the leadership campus for the nursing program, UAF in Arctic research, UAS in marine sciences, and so on.
“Each university has strengths. My goal to make sure their distinctive strengths are uniquely distinctive,” Johnsen said.
Throughout the university system, administrative function will be evaluated for cost-effectiveness. The statewide administration level might absorb more duties on behalf of the campuses, or the campuses might take on more of that work and statewide be cut.
“I’m very agnostic about where it lives, I just want it to be more cost-effective and provide more effective service for our students,” Johnsen said.
At the community campus level, including Kenai Peninsula College, e-learning technology — allowing a student to take a class online or via teleconferencing — will be integral to maintaining class offerings while cutting budgets.
“Gary and his colleagues across the state are working very, very hard to figure out how to build on the collaboration they’ve already achieved, but more and more to become even more cost-effective,” Johnsen said.
Whatever cuts or consolidations are proposed, though, Johnsen said that the university needs to be mindful of putting students first. Along with tuition going up, enrollment is already down about 4.5 percent, owing largely to dwindling high school enrollments. The university can’t afford to have a reduced budget mean reduced quality and further reduced enrollment. Johnsen said they’re working on better integrating the university system to offer a better experience for students, by instituting a common calendar, for instance, and making sure a degree at one site is immediately transferable to another.
“We need to get our head around how to create success for our students. That drumbeat we will continue until we get there,” he said.
All options are on the table as the administration keeps one eye on Juneau and the other on the goal of becoming more lean, as long as that doesn’t mean reducing quality, cost-effectiveness or access to the higher education it offers in Alaska.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. It’s not, ‘Close the rural campuses or just shut that down, or get rid of administration.’ There is no simple, clear answer, but I’m confident that with the hard work of our leaders on our community campuses, our universities, our regents, our students, smart people that can come up with some ideas as well, and certainly our faculty, we’ll come up with a plan,” Johnsen said. “No question, there will be pain. I would never say that this is a painless exercise. But that said, we’ll do our best to continue serving Alaskans as cost-effectively, highest-quality as we can.”