Alaska Slashes Funding for State University System

A 40 percent cut in state support could disproportionately affect programs serving Alaska Natives

By Paul Boyer

University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay Campus students conducting research. Photo courtesy of Todd Radenbaugh.

Faculty and administrators are predicting that an unprecedented 41 percent cut in state funding to the University of Alaska system will have a dramatic and disproportionate effect on Alaska Native students, especially those enrolled in the system’s rural community campuses.

“The situation is dire,” said Todd Radenbaugh, an associate professor of environmental science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay Campus.

The mandated cuts are the result of Gov. Michael Dunleavy’s line-item veto of the state’s recently passed budget. An attempt by the state legislature to override the veto failed to garner the 75 percent majority required, making it likely that $136 million will be cut from the university’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year.

The university and its advocates in the legislature are now looking for ways to restore some of the lost funding through a separate appropriations bill, but educators note that passage will take time and that new legislation, even if passed, could also be vetoed by the Republican governor. Additional appropriations would, at best, restore only a portion of lost funding.

It’s not yet clear how the university will absorb cuts on this scale. In the immediate aftermath of the veto and failed override, educators and state policy makers are discussing several scenarios: maintaining the existing three-university system, but dramatically curtailing programs within each; closing one or more universities and/or community campuses; or consolidating the three universities into one, with a single accreditation.

All options would significantly affect students, who would see tuition rise—probably significantly—and degree programs disappear.

But Alaska Native students could be affected most of all, according to faculty and administrators. Alaska Natives represent over 15 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census, and over 20 percent of the student body at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the state’s flagship campus.

However, Alaska Natives are even more strongly represented in the state’s twelve community campuses. According to Todd Radenbaugh of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay, between 60 and 80 percent of students enrolled in the university’s community campuses are Alaska Native.

Most of these campuses are located in rural regions, far from the state’s few urban centers. The Bristol Bay campus, for example, is located in Dillingham, Alaska, a town of about 2,300 residents on the Bering Sea. Inaccessible by car, it’s an hour’s flight from Anchorage.

These community campuses offer certificates, associate degrees, and occupational endorsements, as well as transfer-oriented degrees for students hoping to continue their education. Like tribal colleges, they often work to incorporate cultural knowledge into their degree programs and provide services that reflect the needs of the local community.

Critics of the university note that the system spends far more per student than most other public universities in the lower 48. Budget cuts will promote greater efficiency, they argue, by eliminating duplicated degree programs and encouraging use of distance learning.

University educators respond that it’s not the simple. Costs are higher precisely because the state is so large and communities are so isolated. And while online education can save money, it cannot fully replace the programs and support offered by faculty and staff at the community campuses.

Radenbaugh noted that the Bristol Bay campus offers a certificate program in environmental studies and supports research through an environmental studies lab. Occupational endorsements are available in surface water quality, rural waste management, and sustainable energy. The campus also offers job focused degrees in nursing and construction trades, among fields.

Closure of the rural campuses would certainly mean elimination of most community focused programs, Radenbaugh said. “We would lose pretty much all capacity for place-based education.” Students—those able and willing to leave their communities–would instead have to attend distant campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Juneau.  

Online course delivery is also an imperfect solution. Radenbaugh noted that internet access is unreliable in many rural regions. Out of necessity, online courses are taught through low bandwidth software. “I do that, it works, but it’s harder,” he said.

Ironically, the veto and resulting spending freeze—no travel, no new programs–prevents the system from pursuing other sources of funding. At Bristol Bay, Radenbaugh said, “most of our money comes from grants,” citing the USDA and the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program as two key sources of support. The governor’s veto, he argued, could result in closure of campuses and programs that are primarily sustained by other funding sources.

Above all, the cuts—no matter what form they take—will weaken the university’s ability to serve Alaska Natives. Programs that support enrollment and retention of these historically underserved students will be lost. “All that human capital we built up will not be promoted anymore,” he said. “All we learned about how to teach science, all that would disappear.”

University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Daniel White is urging faculty and students to “hang tight” and not abandon the institution. But as the system prepares the groundwork for massive layoffs—including the possible firing of tenured faculty—an anxious mood prevails. “At one time, I thought I had a little bit of immunity, Radenbaugh said. “Now I don’t know if I have any immunity.”

When he didn’t answer his phone on a recent afternoon, Radenbaugh explained that he had been otherwise engaged—“putting up more fish and bottling beer,” he said, “for the hard times to come.”

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