Alaska had a rough summer. There were record temperatures, extended wildfires, and increased flooding. And then there was the financial cliff that the governor pushed its state university system over in July—stunning education officials who had to absorb the effects of an announced 41 percent cut, $135 million, in public support in the coming year.
“The summer mood was shock and gloom,” says Glenn Juday, a professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Just a big inky void when looking at the future.”
The scale and speed of the threatened cut shocked the university, which was forced to declare a state of financial emergency that gave it the power to fire tenured staff and close departments. Things have improved—slightly—in recent weeks. The bulk of this year’s threatened state funds have been restored. And the remaining cuts, about $70 million in all, will now be phased in over three years, buying university officials time to cancel the emergency and consider their response.
The university currently operates three, separately accredited and administered main institutions: the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), and the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. There are also 13 community campuses.
A meeting of the university Board of Regents, held September 12–13, ordered a review of academic programs including engineering, health, and natural sciences. It also agreed that merging the three separate universities into a single accredited institution should be looked at as a way to save money—but the board insisted that no decision has been made.
In a statement, Mary Hughes, a university Regent who chairs a subcommittee set up to plan how the university could restructure, says, “We are open to all of the options or even a hybrid. We are open to the discussion of keeping the University of Alaska accredited and of maintaining all our 16 campuses, but understand that change is necessary.”
Kat Milligan-Myhre, an assistant professor in biological sciences at UAA, says she is anxious about the future. “If I was tenured I would feel much better,” she tells The Scientist. “What I’m particularly worried about is that our research will be moved to Fairbanks and either we will be asked to take on more teaching, which will reduce our ability to do research, or we will be asked to move.”
She is not reassured by the Board of Regents’s statements that no decision has been made. Faculty members have already been asked about how to restructure programs to make them more efficient, she says. “And the underlying theme of that has all been moving towards one accreditation.” Bringing the separate campuses together under a central administration system would save money, university officials say, as overlapping services could be slimmed down.
Budget cuts in recent years already mean that academic staff who leave are not replaced, Milligan-Myhre adds. “We were already at a place where we can’t really afford to lose more faculty without seriously disrupting the classes that we can offer and the research opportunities we can offer.”
Remaining faculty members are under pressure to increase their teaching commitments. “We’ve been resisting that because when you teach four classes a year, it’s really hard to get research done,” she says. “And when you teach four or five or six classes a year, then you just can’t do research.”
Not all of the university’s scientists are so vulnerable to cuts in funding from the state. Robert McCoy, the director of the UAF Geophysical Institute, says about 90 percent of its $50 million annual budget comes from federal sources including the National Science Foundation and NASA.
Even so, there was understandable nervousness among the institute’s 65 or so faculty members when the first—and most severe—state funding cut was announced, he says. “We noticed a slowdown in [grant] proposals. People were rethinking whether they were going to commit themselves to three to five years of work or were they going to go someplace else,” he says. “But I think we’re past that now. Proposals are starting to go in and people are starting to get back to work.”
Uncertain public finances and declining student numbers are a problem beyond Alaska, Juday says. So just as the state’s summer of fire and no ice heralds environmental change, he predicts the cash crisis in Alaskan higher education is a sign of things to come. “I think that’s going to be a theme that we’ll see, especially in the US,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons to suspect that this is an example of something that we’re all going to have to deal with.”