University of Alaska regents should reject Dunleavy's strong-arm tactics

With the survival of the University of Alaska now in question because of the abysmal performance of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the Tuesday meeting of the UA Board of Regents will be a critical one.

While a bipartisan majority of legislators voted again Monday to support higher education, the UA regents are left in a terrible spot with no good options, because Dunleavy has decided to rule Alaska via the veto.

Dunleavy pledged as a candidate to make no cuts to the university, but once he was elected he said that his plans had been based on higher oil prices, so Alaskans should forget his promises.

“We were told that we were going to have $75 a barrel oil,” Dunleavy told a reporter in February, one of the dumbest things any politician has said in 2019.

Alaskans and the Legislature aren’t with him on destroying higher education, but he used his veto power to push the university over the edge with a cut of more than $130 million.

As they struggle to find the best response to the Dunleavy disaster, one decision should be an easy one for the regents.

They should reject the one-page master plan from Dunleavy, a slipshod document created in one day with numbers plucked out of the air.

The one-pager from Dunleavy comes with a threat: The university must follow the foolish scheme proposed by Dunleavy or he won’t agree to make the budget cuts over two years, with an $85 million cut this year and $38 million next year. Otherwise, he will do it all in one year.

Remember that he is creating this chaos against the wishes of a majority of the Legislature, both Republicans and Democrats.

Dunleavy really should try to justify his page to the regents, but he will probably avoid that risk and assign the task to the Office of Management and Budget, which has become his political attack arm, funded with public money and led by Donna Arduin.

The Alaska Constitution establishes the University of Alaska, not as an agency controlled by the governor, but as a state entity that “shall be governed by a board of regents.”

The regents will see the weaknesses in the Dunleavy plan if they read a new report from a retired UAF administrator that shows the false claims and mistakes that underlie his attack on higher education. Click here for the analysis.

The report is by Susan Henrichs, the retired UAF provost, someone with a clear understanding of the complexity of UA finances. This is an understanding that Dunleavy, Arduin and policy director Mike Barnhill do not possess.

Henrichs said she did not write this at the solicitation of the university administration, but did so on her own, without compensation, because of her belief that decisions of this magnitude should be based on facts, not falsehoods. In this report, she counters claims made by a UAA faculty committee and by the Dunleavy administration about UAF and the entire UA system.

She wrote that the Office of Management and Budget, where Arduin and Barnhill work, has published inflated cost claims about UAF, the institution that has become the prime target of Dunleavy, Arduin and Barnhill.

In essence, the Dunleavy claim is that costs are out of hand at UAF and that lower costs at UAA should be the model. What the governor won’t acknowledge is the value to Alaskans of the research enterprise at UAF, the higher cost of living in Fairbanks and the academic value of advanced degree programs.

This amounts to a severe threat not just to the Fairbanks economy, but to the entire state. The governor is exaggerating the costs in Fairbanks and downplaying the benefits of a successful research enterprise.

“Research universities like UAF have higher instructional costs that comprehensive universities like UAA, but not inordinately higher,” Henrichs wrote. “The extremely high cost per student calculated by the State of Alaska OMB included many expenditures that are unrelated to student numbers, such as costs for research, public service and administrative support and facilities for those activities.”

UAF, which brings in $100 million a year in research grants and contracts, is among the most successful institutions in the country in attracting research dollars, based on its enrollment, ranking 19th out of 1,702 institutions, she wrote. Most of the institutions with higher ratios are medical schools.

Much of the money is spent in Alaska and provides direct benefits to Alaska in everything from monitoring earthquakes to understanding how climate change is impacting fish and game resources.

The additional funds are not being spent mostly on instruction, though OMB includes these costs in the dollars per student ratio, leading to distorted results. Another element is that at UAF and other research universities, there is a focus on graduate programs, which are more expensive to deliver.

The superficial OMB report on the university and the superficial one-page plan from Dunleavy do not address costs and benefits and include no analysis worthy of the name.

Here is one important error that the budget office has refused to correct—the cost per student it claims for UAA includes the community and technical college student numbers, while the Fairbanks cost per student does not include the community and technical college. Correct for that error and the cost per student in Fairbanks is much closer to that in Anchorage.

The error reflects a failure to take into account the reality that UAA and UAF are organized in different ways, an omission that is representative of the dishonest approach taken by the Dunleavy administration.

Dermot Cole3 Comments