The University of Alaska was handed an $8 million budget cut by the Legislature’s conference committee Wednesday evening, dropping its state funding to $317 million for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year.
Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Walker proposed an operating budget of $325 million, consistent with the previous year’s allocation. This was followed by a Senate proposal of a drastic cut to $303 million in April.
The UA Board of Regents met in Fairbanks Thursday morning to discuss the budget announcement and a contingency plan for a potential government shutdown.
“This is not the time for high-fives,” UA President Jim Johnsen said during the meeting. “I think I can say that there’s a sense of relief that the number is not $303 (million) or $309 (million). There’s the likelihood that we’ll continue operations so that’s a positive, but it’s more a sense of relief than a sense of celebration.”
Johnsen emphasized the continued trend of cuts to the university system, noting $61 million in cuts over the past four years.
“It’s a cumulative cut,” Johnsen said. “That’s why there are 933 fewer staff and faculty.”
Along with faculty and staff cuts, 50 academic degrees and certificate programs have been suspended or cut altogether.
In an effort to absorb these additional budget cuts, the university will likely suffer further program and faculty cuts in addition to continuing with Strategic Pathways, a plan to consolidate and streamline academic programs across the university, Johnsen said.
This presents a number of issues, including the university’s “teach out” agreement, as pointed out by Regent John Davies, which requires that the university system allow students already declared in a discontinued major to finish their degree before the program is eliminated completely.
“Either direct or implied contracts with students require teach out, so some of the savings that you might get by reducing a program don’t get realized for, two, three, four years in some cases,” Davies said.
In addition to program cuts, Johnsen discussed the possibility of future increases in tuition.
“There is not, in the budget proposal, a midyear tuition increase,” Johnsen said. “We do, however, believe that it’s appropriate and necessary to continue regular, modest tuition increases in the future.”
The University of Alaska is currently 19 percent below the other 14 western states with regard to undergraduate tuition costs, Johnsen said.
In addition to discussing the budget, the regents unanimously passed a contingency plan to prepare for a potential government shutdown.
Even after the news Thursday that there may be a budget agreement in the works, Johnsen pushed to vote through the plan just in case.
“It’s unlikely we need this, but out of an abundance of caution, we need a plan for how we would continue to operate,” Johnsen said.
The motion authorizes President Johnsen to receive advances from the Office of Management and Budget to help fund the university at a reduced level during the shutdown. This would include the continuation of summer instruction, Johnsen clarified.
As of the end of the business day Thursday, the Legislature had reached a budget agreement that will avert a shutdown that awaited the votes of the full House and Senate.
“One thing that is certain is that we have much more hard work to do,” Johnsen said. “Both in terms of supporting this budget and in making the tough management decisions that are going to be required to absorb the cuts and to make the investments looking forward.”
After passing the shutdown contingency plan unanimously, the regents adjourned with plans to meet again in the case of an official state budget agreement.
Town hall meetings will be held today on all three main campuses to discuss the new budget and shutdown contingency plan with students, staff and faculty. The meetings will be at 9 a.m in Egan 223 in Juneau, at 2 p.m in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium in Anchorage, and at 3:30 p.m in the Wood Center ballroom in Fairbanks.