University of Alaska deserves honest analysis from Dunleavy, not this word salad

I’m not sure if longtime state employee Mike Barnhill believes what he says about the University of Alaska budget or if he is a loyal soldier called upon to defend the dismantling of the institution by the governor and the temporary budget director.

In either case, Barnhill’s testimony in support of a gigantic UA budget cut stands out for the sheer volume of misinformation that he has chosen to pass along to legislators and the public.

Relying on jargon and generalities, sounding as soothing as a veteran undertaker, he has the stamina to go on at length, disguising the absence of an honest Dunleavy administration accounting about the value of the university to Alaskans.

Legislators are accustomed to those who give answers without answering, deflecting and distracting by stringing random sentences together long enough to make everyone in the audience start thinking about lunch.

The university is too important to Alaska to accept that.

Because Barnhill has been assigned to lead the Dunleavy attack on the university, armed with the weakest of arguments, I’m going to go over what he said in some detail. This is the first in a series of blog posts.

The governor has proposed a 41 percent cut in the state unrestricted general fund appropriation, a $134 million reduction that would cripple many university programs.

Speaking to the House Finance Committee Wednesday. Barnhill started off by saying that the overall UA budget proposed by the Dunleavy administration would show an increase in the next fiscal year, rising from $888 million to $901 million.

That is dishonest because Dunleavy has added $154 million in imaginary money, which falsely inflates the second number.

Rather than describe this con to legislators in English, Barnhill claimed it represents an opportunity, which is not true.

He said the reduction of $134 million would be “coupled with an increase of $154 million in designated general funds. The purpose for the increase is simply to increase the university’s authority to seek and collect other funds to assist in making up for the reduction in unrestricted general funds of $134 million. There is no policy expectation that they do that in any particular way.”

Where is the university going to find $154 million before July?

The honest answer would have been, “I have no idea,” or “There is no place to get that kind of money."

Instead of that, he said this:

“I don’t mean to give the impression that I am aware of specific resources. I am aware that universities elsewhere, including the University of Alaska, avail themselves of a variety of fund sources when they prepare a budget. That includes going to alumni in a capital campaign, it includes leveraging federal dollars. It includes going to private sector for fundraising. It includes tuition, coupled with that the opportunity to make consolidations and cost reductions,” Barnhill said.

To her credit, Rep. Tammie Wilson asked about whether losing $134 million would mean a loss of the ability to “leverage” federal funds. Those interested in the truth should understand there is no question that the $134 million cut would lead to a decline in federal funds.

Instead of saying so, Barnhill gave this non-answer.

“I don’t have specific familiarity with the types of funds that they leverage from the federal government. However, I am almost completely sure that raising funds from the federal government in the university higher education context is not the same as leveraging funds for instance in the Medicaid context where there is a dollar-for-dollar match,” he said.

“I know of other universities, for instance, later in the slide deck I reference Michigan State University’s research program. They match on a 29-to-one basis the University of Alaska matches on a 6-to-one basis. I believe there are other opportunities. Can they be tapped overnight? I have no idea, but I believe there are resources there.”

“We believe from a policy perspective that the University of Alaska can be supported with this level of funding, can grow, can achieve high quality education and excellence. The question is how do we get there from here?”

There is reason to question the $29-to-$1 one claim because the Higher Education Research and Development Survey, available at the National Science Foundation website, shows that Michigan does not do a better job than UA of leveraging institutional research and development support to get federal dollars.

What Alaska needs from Barnhill and other public employees is honest analysis, not more marshmallow talk in which comments with no substance behind them are passed off as relevant in a discussion about the future of one of the most important institutions in our state.

Dermot Cole6 Comments