University of Alaska regents vote to declare financial exigency

University of Alaska regents have adopted a declaration of financial exigency, enabling immediate budget cuts, including expedited faculty layoffs. Regents approved the declaration at a meeting in Anchorage today in response to an over 40 percent reduction in state funding.

Board chair John Davies called it a sad day, and one that comes despite overwhelming public support for the university, as demonstrated during statewide public hearings last week, during which he says 86 percent of those who testified, spoke in support of reversing university cuts, and other state funding vetoed by Governor Dunleavy.   

“But on the other hand, we have as indicated a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that the institution survives. And I think unfortunately, we are right now grappling with survival,” Davies said.

Regents approved the exigency declaration 10-to-1. It only allows actions which Regent Lisa Parker, the sole no vote, pointed out are not clear. “I don’t see through this declaration that we’re going to be able to be saving $11 million a month to reduce that burn rate. That’s not been indentified,” Parker said.

The funding cut took effect July 1 and some regents expressed the urgency of addressing it quickly. Calling the reduction a political choice, chair Davies expressed slim hope that the legislature might restore some of the money. 

“If I have to bet on it right now, I don’t think it’s very likely,” Davies said.

The second portion of today’s regent’s meeting focused on how the university can actually cut costs. UA President Jim Johnsen said exigency enables faster downsizing, and outlined three avenues.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen appears on an episode of Forum@360 in Juneau on April 3, 2018. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

“We can save the money closing campuses and we can save the money by shrinking each one of the campuses within our current University structure,” Johnsen said. “Or, we can re-envision how we serve the state’s higher education needs.”

Regents expressed interest in options two and three. Johnsen favored the single university model, in which all UA campuses work together to support core areas of study. 

“So a college of engineering, education, management, business… through a common curriculum and calendar, course blocks, common bill, a common transcript, a common application,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen said courses would be taught in person and online, and the ratio of students to faculty would increase. UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen questioned how long it would take to make such a fundamental shift, and said individual campuses are already cutting costs.  

“We are working diligently to move toward reduction. And I think that gives us time to analyze a major structural change. And I think it’s the quickest path forward to meeting these reductions,” Sandeen said.

The UAS and UAF chancellors also expressed concerns about centralizing the system, but President Johnsen stressed that the individual campus changes would have to be very dramatic to meet the cut. Regents asked Johnsen to bring more detailed analysis of options two and three to regents at the July 30 meeting. 

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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