Cole

Dermot Cole





A University of Alaska Anchorage faculty committee is helping Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s reckless plan to dismantle the University of Alaska.

They will claim otherwise, I’m sure.

The UAA Faculty Senate released a committee report saying that after a thorough analysis it has concluded that the university should make cuts in Fairbanks, not in Anchorage. The university spends too much in Fairbanks, they say.

It’s all about economics, according to the 14-member committee that did this report for the faculty senate.

“Admittedly, UAF would bear the brunt of the costs. Probably, it will be necessary to declare a state of financial exigency at UAF or for some units that are a part of UAF,” the Anchorage faculty members conclude.

They said that perhaps the declaration could be limited to a few academic units at UAF where tenured jobs could be eliminated to save money.

But there is no need to declare an emergency in Anchorage, they said.

The Dunleavy vetoes, if distributed in proportion, “would strike a potentially devastating blow for UAF and for the Fairbanks community,” the report reads.

At least they recognize the extent of the threat, as a majority of legislators do.

“We feel it necessary to point out that historically unequal funding per student within the UA system is the cause of UAF’s financial vulnerability,” they say.

The committee includes a request to break up UA and make the operations in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage independent of each other with three separate boards to set policy. I don’t believe the claim that this would be great for Alaska or that it would save money.

While saying that UAF should declare a financial emergency, the report has the contradictory claim that “The market exists for three comprehensive universities in Alaska.”

“Over the longer term, we believe that the devolution of authority and responsibility will have a positive effect on the financial behavior of the universities, such that they will become more efficient and produce better education and research,” the UAA faculty claim.

The report suggests ending intercollegiate sports programs, getting rid of the statewide administration and reducing expenditures in Fairbanks.

I don’t think the UAA faculty had this in mind, but the result of their report is to advance the Dunleavy Disaster, creating a distraction that exacerbates the age-old problems of regional rivalries and academic infighting.

Instead, the focus should be on the absurd notion that the university can withstand a $135 million cut on top of reductions in previous years without doing great harm to Alaska.

Truth be told, the instinctive reaction of many people in Fairbanks is to call for preserving UAF and doing away with UAA. But turning this into a turf protection war is a grave mistake. It will lead to an implosion.

Regarding the UAA report, there are reasons why things cost more in Fairbanks.

The presence of several internationally recognized research institutes, which draw in many millions in federal contracts, is one key factor. The high-level scientific research that takes place is expensive. And every research university in the nation is much more expensive than those without that focus, leading to higher costs per student. The research effort at UAF is about 10 times greater than at UAA.

In addition, the research institutes are a major foundation for the many graduate programs at UAF, which are more expensive than undergraduate offerings.

UAF offers about 50 master’s degree and 17 Ph.D. programs. UAA has 23 master’s degree and six Ph.D. programs. The first doctoral program offered exclusively through UAA was nursing in 2015.

A third element is the cost of utilities and other basic needs. Anchorage has cheap natural gas. Fairbanks has its own power plant for heat and light, a new facility that required UAF to mortgage its future.

If UAA had to mortgage its future to pay for the $110 million basketball palace championed by Republican legislators from the state’s largest city, the calculations would change. And if the new UAA engineering building had come with a mortgage, as the UAF engineering building does, the situation would look a little different.

A lot of factors have not been given due consideration in the ill-timed UAA takedown.

Some of it is reminiscent of the bogus claims made earlier this year by state budget analyst Mike Barnhill in presentations to the Legislature on behalf of temporary budget director Donna Arduin. He claimed Fairbanks was too expensive and deserved to be cut.

Among Barnhill’s major errors were his assumptions that UAA and UAF have the same mission, attract the same students, offer the same courses, provide the same degree programs, employ the same faculty members, have the same buildings and are the same academic institutions in every way.

The response that UA President Jim Johnsen offered to Barnhill’s presentation a few months ago is appropriate for the UAA document as well:

“Really the choice before us is do we want to have a University of Alaska, a university for Alaska or do we want to have a university of one big city? I think we would rather have the university that’s serving Alaska rather than a university just serving one location in our state.”

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermotmcole@gmail.com.

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