Alaska gears up to clobber its universities

The University of Alaska system just learned it will experience a 41% budget cut.

This goes far beyond my queen sacrifice chess analogy and into “sweeping whole ranks of pieces off the board” terrain.

Here’s the story, from what I can discover through one day’s research.  Please add more in the comments, especially if you’re from Alaska.

The state budget has been running deficits for several years, since its revenue comes largely from oil taxes, and the price of oil has stayed low.  Governor Mike Dunleavy (Republican) has pressed for budget cuts, and just vetoed a more generous budget from the state legislature.*  The 2019-2020 fiscal year starts Monday, and it looks like UA will begin with a 41% cut.

It doesn’t sound like a one-time cut.  Listen to the governor’s explanation:

Dunleavy… told reporters he has faith in university leaders but said he doesn’t think the university system “can be all things to all people. And I think that’s, generally speaking, the state of Alaska. We can’t continue to be all things for all people.”

Can’t be all things… so we’ll only do some things, as opposed to the broad spectrum of services provided by a university (hence the name).  To my ears that sounds like a strategic retreat in public higher ed, lopping off key functions.

There’s another hint of this direction in another statement:

“I do believe the University of Alaska is resilient. I do believe they have good leadership, and I’d say give them a chance,” Dunleavy said. “ I believe that they can turn the university into a smaller, leaner, but still very, very positive and productive university here in the northern hemisphere.”

This isn’t belt-tightening or even austerity.  It’s a strategic redirection, a historic transformation.

As one commentator observes,

the university cannot absorb an additional, substantial reduction in state general funds without abruptly halting numerous student career pathways mid-stream, eliminating services, or shutting down community campuses or universities. An additional reduction of even $10 million — on top of the $51 million in cuts we’ve already taken — will mean the discontinuation of programs and services with little or no notice, and that in turn will have ripple effects, damaging UA’s ability to generate revenue and causing even greater harm across the state.

So what happens now? The UA president, James Johnsen, announced plans, in case the legislature can’t overpower the governor’s decision.

First, “[f]urlough notices will be distributed immediately to all university staff.”  That’s all university staff, for a period of six weeks starting now. Plus, unsurprisingly, “an immediate freeze on hiring, travel and new contracts.”

Second, “[i]n the event an override is not secured, the Regents also directed me to prepare a plan for declaring financial exigency by July 15th.”  If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s a very meaningful one:

This declaration permits the university to more rapidly discontinue programs and academic units, and to start the unprecedented process of removing tenured faculty…

the board will be asked… for our plan for what programs, what units, what campuses across the University of Alaska system will need to be reduced or discontinued or closed.

Johnsen is quite clear on the reality of this: “we simply can’t meet these budget targets without laying off a large number of people.”  So a series of queen sacrifices will occur, at scale.

Meanwhile, the United States attorney general declared Alaska crime dangerous and numerous enough to constitute a state of emergency.

What do we make of this?

In immediate terms, Alaska is going to be hit with human costs.  Staff and faculty will suffer loss of compensation or jobs.  Students may not be able to complete their degrees, according to this UA FAQ. (“The university will make reasonable efforts to ensure completion of programs. However, that may not always be possible.”)

Certain programs are unusual and precious.  As one correspondent noted on Twitter,

Beyond the immediate pain, does this indicate anything for the rest of higher education?

On the one hand, the case is anomalous.  Alaska has an unusual funding situation, collecting neither sales nor income tax.  The university system must serve a small population spread over a very large and often challenging land.

Yet on the other, it’s a useful, if extreme, example of states slashing support to public higher education.  In this way, it points to one Republican strategy which might occur elsewhere, if not to this degree.  As Chuck Pearson notes in a short Twitter thread,

The governor’s action may also point to a political maneuver: cut higher ed and push some savings to voters through other ways.  Paul Fain sees this:

No other state has this particular line item, but we can imagine other such tradeoffs in other areas.  Cut public higher ed and spend more on pensions, or health care, or the penal system.  Readers may recall my story about state budget priorities, and how higher ed can easily lose out.

The still-unfolding Alaska story also shows – concretely – how a university can respond to this pressure.

One last point: I’m still struck by Dunleavy’s line about the university system no longer being “all things to all people.”  This sounds like a major effort to downgrade universities – not just by budget, but in their very structure.  Universities are no longer universal in scope, but narrowed to certain particulars. We’ve seen echoes of this elsewhere, as when Wisconsin’s governor Walker sought to restrict that state’s post-secondary services to job training alone.  It could be an emerging model of higher ed, somewhat unbundled and suited to new demographics.  It could also fit a society that retreats from a commitment to universal post-secondary experience.

Meanwhile, my best wishes to Alaskans.  And please share your information and reflections, those of you in or close to that state.

(thanks to numerous friends for sharing this one)

*Meanwhile, the governor also increased payouts to individuals through the Permanent Fund Dividend program (thanks to Don Moynihan).

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19 Responses to Alaska gears up to clobber its universities

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    People should have believed this would happen in February when Governor Dunleavy said he would do it.

    Looks like Unit Academics (AAUP-AFT), UA students, and the communities in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau need to mobilize quickly.

    People who were furloughed can comment anonymously at

    • Chris L says:

      Many of us did believe it. This battle goes back well before the actual veto and the accompanying press.

  2. Tom Stroup says:

    I think it is interesting to read the opening letter in the Governor’s budget. He lays out the fiscal crisis that was created over several years. This portion puts it in perspective:

    “The economic outlook Alaska faces today is dire. After burning through nearly every dollar in the state’s savings
    account — more than $14 billion during the past four years — we are faced with another $1.6 billion deficit, and
    less than a year in reserves. The gradual glide path approach, which lawmakers called for repeatedly since the rapid
    decline in oil prices, never came to fruition. Oversized budgets and outmatched spending continued with little


    • Dahn Shaulis says:

      Remember that genius Governor Sarah Palin that John McCain so aptly regretted picking as his VP candidate? My G-d, this sounds like the story of a poor (corrupt) country, not a state in the US, unless you count Illinois and Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Louisiana, New Mexico…

      Its only a matter of time before outsiders call Alaska a “basket case.”

      • Kenneth M Van Horn says:

        Sarah Palin resigned as Governor of Alaska in 2009. That would place her well outside the time frame of mismanagement. Furthermore, the prior governor ran as an independent and had a Democrat as running mate.

        So, respectfully, keep uninformed politics out of it.

        Pragmatically, whatever the problem, fix the problem first and not the blame.

        From a public policy perspective, an across the board reduction would have been a better choice. Let everyone take a hit instead of making the University system bear the cuts to make up for the largest part of the budget shortfall.

        • Chris L says:

          Palin’s oil tax, which she pushed through against the Right, has had a long-term positive effect. The big political problem was Mark Begich deciding to run for gov, splitting the left-center vote…and then the Lt. Gov having to resign due to sexual harassment, which combined to guarantee Dunleavy (and his Koch-bros aided wrecking ball) the win and then the Permanent Fund Dividend pandering to take off in earnest. The gutting of UA (and a bevy of other programs) clearly represents not just right-wing politics as seen in other places, but also some very specific score settling between Dunleavy and the Fairbanks and Anchorage communities.

        • Dahn Shaulis says:

          The problem is not going to be fixed, at least not soon. The mismanagement occurred generations ago, though US imperialism and ongoing ignorance, and the culture is not likely to change for a very long time. It’s ironic that Alaska and Venezuela have similar problems, but Republicans and neoliberals cannot see it.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Exactly right, Tom. The persistence of low oil prices is the economic driver here.

  3. Zach Chandler says:

    Have they done an impact study of what UA contributes to the Alaska economy? In most cases, a research university means a net increase to the state economy, several fold over what is received by the university in state funding (I recall a study like this at my alma mater UNH, conducted by the Chancellor’s office several years ago –but I don’t think that meant more investment either). This is very shortsighted.

    • Pat Tully says:

      The Governor’s Office has released no impact study on the effect of the UA cut or the many other cuts the Governor has made in the state budget. I was one of many who attended one of the Governor’s presentations on his proposed state budget cuts back in the spring, and his position then appeared to be that the University, K-12 education, and other affected institutions will find ways to become leaner and more efficient with little or no negative effect on Alaska’s economy. As for UA, the Governor expressed support for the marine research program but little else. The Governor is a true believer in severely limiting state government, and so far has not been swayed by the outpouring of concern and outrage expressed by people throughout the state in the past several months. We are pinning our hopes on a legislative override–absent that, UA and Alaska itself are in for a devastating economic future.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Pat, thank you for sharing your informed perspective.

        It sounds like “leaner” means “a very different university system.”

      • Pat Tullty says:

        The Legislature could not pull together enough votes to overrride the Governor’s vetoes by the July 12th deadline, so the budget cuts stand. The University, with many other human-service agencies and municipalities, will be scrambling to determine how to salvage as many of their operations as they can in the face of these cuts. We’ll pull together and make the best of it–Alaskans do. But we are in for some very dark economic times here.

    • Dahn Shaulis says:

      Yes, it’s very short sighted. But we’re talking about leaders who want to continue relying on fossil fuels and tourism for revenues. This is a strange twist, and I may be wrong, but maybe it’s good if more people leave Alaska, especially people who are not indigenous people. The environment was not made to hold so many people, especially people who use resources so indiscriminantly.

      • Chris L says:

        Born and raised in Alaska—and a 20+ yr staff member at UAF until recently—and I agree with you here. The fact is, Alaska is an extreme environment in which very, very few can survive without heavy government subsidization. So it’s a matter of priorities as to where those monies go, to a much greater degree than most other places, and while the right, left and center all suckle at the government teats, it’s clear that the right wants to make as much money as possible, residents and the long-term future be damned.

  4. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, not sure what happened but my previous post never appeared. It sounds like United Academics (the AAUP-AFT group), students, staff, and the communities of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau will need to mobilize quickly to get a 3/4 override. People who were furloughed can post anonymously at the

  5. L Lieggi says:

    As much as I value higher education, I was not aware that this human right had been included in our bill of rights: “It could also fit a society that retreats from a commitment to universal post-secondary experience.”

    What United States are you living in?

    • Dahn Shaulis says:

      The US Bill of Rights was written by white, male, elites almost 250 years ago. Many were enslavers, and back then, genocide was ok. What world are you living in…and in what century?

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