There has been much concern regarding the future of the University of Alaska, given the events of the last six months. I’d like to assure all Alaskans that, despite all the upset over our budget and the ongoing discussions about change, UA must and will continue to provide broad access to high quality education and workforce training to students throughout the state.
This year’s funding agreement with the governor is a $70 million reduction over three years, and means that by 2022 annual state funding to the university will have declined by $121 million (32 percent). These continued budget reductions require changes for the university and — no matter what UA’s structure ends up being — we must keep our focus on ensuring resources for academic programs and student services. Of course the details matter, and each detail will impact numerous stakeholders.
The immediate issue the Board of Regents must face is the $25 million budget reduction in the fiscal year that started in July with an eye on another $45 million in cuts over the next two years.
As directed by the board, we are implementing administrative consolidations across the system. We are collecting input on how best to combine duplicative academic colleges and schools, consolidate research institutes, and better integrate our community campuses. However, the savings we generate from these consolidations are limited by our current structure of three separately accredited universities.
So the broader question our elected leaders, the Board of Regents and all Alaskans are asking is whether we can afford, and effectively staff, three universities, or whether one university, with programs based in locations across the state, can more cost effectively deliver programs and services to all students.
Maintaining three separate universities has the advantage of initially requiring the least structural change and preserves local control and identity. However, it also requires three administrations and multiple administrators. This comes with a cost in real dollars which are then not available for students.
That structure impacts UA’s adaptability to respond to a fast changing technological, economic, and demographic reality. It promotes unnecessary competition rather than collaboration, as well as costly differences in student processes and requirements that are barriers to students’ access and progress.
Even if the Board of Regents ultimately decides to maintain three separate universities, change will happen. Regents will need to assess whether the current structure is worth the cost to students and academic programs.
There is no question that changing back to a single university would pose issues in institutional and program accreditations, as well as challenges to maintaining local responsiveness and a sense of local identity. But with just 27,000 students across the state, our entire system is the size of one regional university in the lower 48.
Change also creates uncertainty and fear, some real, because jobs and programs will be lost, but some groundless because opportunities for innovation will be created.
A transition to one university would not occur without successful accreditation. Nor would it mean that all programs and services would be located in one area. One university would make use of faculty, staff, and facilities across the state to offer programs in-person and on-line to meet student demand.
Change must happen, regardless of UA’s structure. As we consolidate administration and academic programs, there will be careful evaluation of the options and a structure that makes the most sense for our students and the state. Because in the end, the University of Alaska must continue to provide access to a high quality education to students all across Alaska.
Jim Johnsen is the 14th president of the University of Alaska.