University of Alaska holds off on merger – for now
This month the University of Alaska System has been faced with an almost impossible decision. With devastating funding cuts coming from the state government and its three flagship universities buckling under the financial pressure, the system’s Board of Regents had to decide whether to merge into one university – a move that was widely decried by students and staff alike.
Back in July, the board decided to move ahead with the merger. But all this changed last week when, in the face of mounting protest, they reversed that decision and unanimously voted to consider other options. While a short-term win for protestors, this leaves the future of Alaska’s higher education sector unknown.
When the board decided to move ahead with the University of Alaska merger, they were fighting against extreme circumstances. A “devastating” 41 percent cut in state funding was forcing them to make tough decisions and left them scrambling to prepare for an uncertain future.
Governor Mike Dunleavy had just cut US$444 million from Alaska’s state’s operating budget, adding to already deep cuts made to services by the Alaska Legislature. The move was an effort to slim the deficit and move closer to a balanced budget without raising taxes or reducing the Permanent Fund dividend – a unique annual payout to Alaska residents from oil revenue.
The University of Alaska was sadly the biggest target of Dunleavy’s line-item veto of individual budget items, losing a substantial US$130 million in state support on top of the US$5 million cut approved earlier by lawmakers.
Under these pressures, the board understandably favoured the idea of consolidating its flagship universities into one single-accreditation institution.
But times have since changed. Seeing the crippling effect the cuts would have on higher education in the northern state, the governor struck a deal with the system to reduce the cuts to US$70 million spread out over three years.
The change of heart has given the university’s leadership time to breathe, and President of the University of Alaska System, Jim Johnsen, has pumped the breaks on making any sweeping decisions just yet.
The news has been welcomed by students who came out strongly in opposition to the move to merge. While Alaska would be far from the only system to merge existing universities, the logistics and scope of their plan made it particularly difficult.
The state’s campuses are literally hundreds of miles apart, making consolidation a difficult prospect and a hard sell to these very independent colleges.
“Students come first, and if students are imploring us not to drive to a one university model, or a single accreditation model, we should be responsive and attentive to that, but also be mindful of the time frame we’re in,” University of Alaska Regent Andy Teuber said during Friday’s meeting in Anchorage, as reported by Anchorage Daily News.
While the plans to merge have been put on the back burner for now, the board did vote to move ahead with fast-tracked, system-wide reviews of programmes and modules. The aim is for this background information on courses, from athletics to engineering, to inform their decision about the system’s future structure.
For now, it seems the University of Alaska has dodged a bullet. But the question remains, how long can they hold off the inevitable before they have to start making some very tough decisions about the sector’s future?