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.