University may never recover from Dunleavy's reckless attack on education

As a candidate for governor, Mike Dunleavy promised not to cut the budget for the University of Alaska.

As governor, Dunleavy is proposing the largest cut in the history of the institution, a reduction of 41 percent in the state appropriation.

One of the serious failings of Alaska news organizations is that little effort is being made to show how the Dunleavy budget differs from Dunleavy’s promises. Making that connection is an essential part of putting his radical plans in context.

Not long ago Dunleavy’s temporary budget director had a member of her staff present a superficial argument for dismantling the university, an embarrassingly weak effort based on a couple of websites and national averages that owe everything to New York, California, Florida, Texas and other states with large populations.

The best way to counter the Republican attack on higher education in Alaska is with facts and research.

To that end, we should thank Susan Henrichs, a retired University of Alaska administrator, who has taken it upon herself to look at the numbers.

Henrichs, who grew up in Anchorage and earned a doctorate in chemical oceanography at MIT, has recently produced two major research reports that every Alaskan should read to better understand the university’s financial situation. These reports were not paid for by the university or approved by the university.

Her work is far superior to anything about UA produced by the Dunleavy budget office and it did not originate with an ideological goal.

One reason for the relatively high percentage of UA funds supplied by the state is that in most other parts of the country, there is local government funding for community colleges. She said UA tuition and fees per student are already 10 percent above the national average, while grant and contract revenue per employee is 1.7 times the national average.

The main takeaway from her work is that the university cannot increase its revenues instantly by $134 million or cut spending by $134 million, while meeting its responsibilities to students.

This is already accelerating the Alaska brain drain.

“The author believes that prospective UA students, who are deciding in the February-May 2019 time frame whether and where to attend college, are already being spurred to decide not to attend college or to choose out-of-state institutions by the uncertain fate of UA,” Henrichs writes in her most recent report.

“Student flight in 2019 and beyond would have severe and wide-ranging impacts on Alaska’s future as well as that of the university. For UA the loss of tuition revenue would compound reductions to state support, even if those reductions are not as large as what the governor has proposed. For Alaska there would no longer be as many in-state graduates to fill health care, teaching, engineering, business management, and a myriad of other career and professional positions requiring a college degree.”

“The only way that UA could respond to a large general fund reduction would be by radical cuts to campuses, programs, and services. The author cannot imagine how UA could absorb a 41 percent decrease in general fund revenue, while still meeting all of its responsibilities to students who are already enrolled, contractual obligations to its employees, and promised outcomes for grant and contract funding. Students would come first, but there is a clear danger that UA’s reputation would be so damaged that it would never fully recover.”

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