Programs will be cut, thousands of students could be lost and hundreds of staff — including tenured professors — are expected to lose their jobs.
“It certainly comes as a shock,” Scott Downing, an associate English professor and Faculty Senate president at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, told The Washington Post of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s decision last week to cut 41% of state appropriations for the University of Alaska system.
“It’s going to be devastating,” Downing continued. “The effects on programs, on the students, on staff and faculty are just going to be — it’s kind of unthinkable.”
Alaska has struggled with multibillion-dollar budget deficits since the 2014 oil market collapse. Dunleavy, who was elected last year, promised to address this shortfall without raising taxes or slashing the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, an annual payout to the state’s residents from oil revenue.
To achieve this, the governor said he would be making extensive cuts to Alaska’s operating budget ― a vow he fulfilled on Friday by using his line-item veto power to slash more than $440 million from the budget passed by the state legislature.
As Anchorage Daily News noted, the biggest loser was the University of Alaska system, which lost an additional $130 million in state funding thanks to the governor’s line-item veto. The legislature had already approved a $5 million cut to the system’s state appropriations, and university leaders said they had not expected additional cuts.
“We can’t continue to be all things for all people,” Dunleavy told reporters of his decision to cut funding to the universities.
University system president James Johnsen likened the governor’s veto to a “bomb.”
“Simply put, if not overridden, today’s veto will strike an institutional and reputational blow from which we may likely never recover,” Johnsen said in a Friday statement.
The budget cuts ― which took effect on Monday ― could lead to the layoffs of more than 1,300 staff and faculty, and a loss of an estimated 3,000 students. Johnsen warned earlier that the system, which includes three universities, could even be forced to shutter some campuses.
Johnsen said he was preparing a “financial exigency” plan that would allow the system to “more rapidly discontinue programs and academic units” and “start the unprecedented process of removing tenured faculty.”
As educator Marshall Shepherd pointed out in a Forbes op-ed last week, the public universities of Alaska pump more than $1 billion annually, directly and indirectly, into the state’s economy. The schools are also a major provider of talent for the local workforce ― and are a leading force in climate change research nationally.
“It is clear that a 41% cut places all of these things at risk,” Shepherd wrote. “It also threatens university leadership in serving the energy, seafood, natural resources, health, transportation and education sectors of the region. Candidly, gutting higher education will not be an effective tool for recruiting bright new talent and industries to the state either. In fact, it probably belongs on ‘a top 5 list’ of how not to attract new people to the state.”
With these risks looming, university leaders, staff and students have begun a grassroots lobbying effort to convince lawmakers to override the governor’s veto.
“We’ll work very hard to try to get the necessary three-quarters of the legislature,” Downing told the magazine Inside Higher Ed, referring to the 45 of 60 votes needed for a veto override. Experts say an override is unlikely.
Still, Downing said there’s “hope that we can encourage legislators to see all the things that the University of Alaska system does for the state in terms of generating economic activity to get to that override number they need.”
Johnsen has urged all Alaskans to “raise your voice” to help the university system.
“There is no strong state without a strong university,” he said in a video plea.