Superficial research fails to make case for dismantling University of Alaska

I sent this email to Mike Barnhill, a veteran state employee, after he spoke to the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday about the Dunleavy administration plan to use national averages as the foundation of its plan to dismantle the University of Alaska.


I was tempted to say that was one of the most dishonest presentations I've ever seen anyone give to the Legislature. But that is an overstatement. To be charitable, I'll call it grossly incomplete.

You know it is fraudulent to compare the University of Alaska to national averages without taking the unique circumstances of the state into account.

Had you started your presentation with that apology and asked legislators to discount your comments, perhaps it would be possible to excuse your approach.

You said the "process that we engaged in" to decide on cutting $134 million was based on information drawn from a couple of websites about national averages.

National averages are not good guidelines for making decisions about Alaska for reasons that you are well aware of.

"We compared the University of Alaska to institutions of higher education across the country. There is mountains of data. There are two sources of data that we relied on."

"There are hundreds of data points. For folks interested at home, you can get onto these websites and compile any kind of report you'd like," you said.

The kind of report that you should have done would have gone beyond the superficial.

You said you used the state Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the National Center of Education Statistics to find a national average on state support per student.

You said the average contribution of states to universities is in the vicinity of $7,000 per student, while the state of Alaska contributes about $16,000 or $17,000.

Without taking any Alaska variables into account, you conclude that the ideal approach is to cut the state contribution by about $5,000 or $6,000 per student.

You said $11,000 per student represents the national average plus a "premium multiplier."

What you failed to present is a real picture of the challenge.

For your next presentation, you should consider the real questions that make your superficial approach indefensible.

1. How much land does the university have? What is the economic potential of that land? What is the cost of developing that land to create reliable income?

2. You did not consider the size of Alaska, the mission of the university, the cost of serving a diverse population and the roadless communities served by the university.

3. Your comparisons of the main UAF campus and the downtown center in Fairbanks are misleading. You don't seem to understand the connection between the two.

4. "There is a culture of looking at costs within the university, but there are some areas of the university that are extremely expensive. And that's primarily the University of Alaska Fairbanks." And why is that? Did you ask anyone?

5. You claim the sensible way to proceed is to take a mythical national average and add a "premium multiplier," which leads to a cut of $5,000 or $6,000 per student.

6. Which campuses and programs do you believe should be eliminated? Where is your analysis on what the impacts of your plans would be?

If you provide a solid research job, one that I am sure you are capable of, given your experience and reputation, your next presentation could be one for the Legislature to take seriously.

I would encourage you to read the attached report from Susan Henrichs, the retired provost of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, about Alaska costs. Much of that information relates to the folly of simplistic per capita calculations such as those you presented today.

Dermot Cole4 Comments