Alaska gears up to clobber its universities

Bryan Alexander
4 min readJun 30, 2019


The University of Alaska system just learned it will experience a 41% budget cut.

This goes far beyond my queen sacrifice chess analogy and into “sweeping whole ranks of pieces off the board” terrain.

Here’s the story, from what I can discover through one day’s research. Please add more in the comments, especially if you’re from Alaska.

The state budget has been running deficits for several years, since its revenue comes largely from oil taxes, and the price of oil has stayed low. Governor Mike Dunleavy(Republican) has pressed for budget cuts, and just vetoed a more generous budget from the state legislature.* The 2019–2020 fiscal year starts Monday, and it looks like UA will begin with a 41% cut.

It doesn’t sound like a one-time cut. Listen to the governor’s explanation:

Dunleavy… told reporters he has faith in university leaders but said he doesn’t think the university system “can be all things to all people. And I think that’s, generally speaking, the state of Alaska. We can’t continue to be all things for all people.”

Can’t be all things… so we’ll only do some things, as opposed to the broad spectrum of services provided by a university (hence the name). To my ears that sounds like a strategic retreat in public higher ed, lopping off key functions.

There’s another hint of this direction in another statement:

“I do believe the University of Alaska is resilient. I do believe they have good leadership, and I’d say give them a chance,” Dunleavy said. “ I believe that they can turn the university into a smaller, leaner, but still very, very positive and productive university here in the northern hemisphere.”

This isn’t belt-tightening or even austerity. It’s a strategic redirection, a historic transformation.

As one commentator observes,

the university cannot absorb an additional, substantial reduction in state general funds without abruptly halting numerous student career pathways mid-stream, eliminating services, or shutting down community campuses or universities. An additional reduction of even $10 million — on top of the $51 million in cuts we’ve already taken — will mean the discontinuation of programs and services with little or no notice, and that in turn will have ripple effects, damaging UA’s ability to generate revenue and causing even greater harm across the state.

So what happens now? The UA president, James Johnsen, announced plans, in case the legislature can’t overpower the governor’s decision.

First, “[f]urlough notices will be distributed immediately to all university staff.” That’s alluniversity staff, for a period of six weeks starting now. Plus, unsurprisingly, “an immediate freeze on hiring, travel and new contracts.”

Second, “[i]n the event an override is not secured, the Regents also directed me to prepare a plan for declaring financial exigency by July 15th.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s a very meaningful one:

This declaration permits the university to more rapidly discontinue programs and academic units, and to start the unprecedented process of removing tenured faculty…

the board will be asked… for our plan for what programs, what units, what campuses across the University of Alaska system will need to be reduced or discontinued or closed.

Johnsen is quite clear on the reality of this: “we simply can’t meet these budget targets without laying off a large number of people.” So a series of queen sacrifices will occur, at scale.

Meanwhile, the United States attorney general declared Alaska crime dangerous and numerous enough to constitute a state of emergency.

What do we make of this?

In immediate terms, Alaska is going to be hit with human costs. Staff and faculty will suffer loss of compensation or jobs. Students may not be able to complete their degrees, according to this UA FAQ. (“The university will make reasonable efforts to ensure completion of programs. However, that may not always be possible.”)

Certain programs are unusual and precious. As one correspondent noted on Twitter,

Beyond the immediate pain, does this indicate anything for the rest of higher education?

On the one hand, the case is anomalous. Alaska has an unusual funding situation, collecting neither sales nor income tax. The university system must serve a small population spread over a very large and often challenging land.

Yet on the other, it’s a useful, if extreme, example of states slashing support to public higher education. In this way, it points to one Republican strategy which might occur elsewhere, if not to this degree. As Chuck Pearson notes in a short Twitter thread,

The governor’s action may also point to a political maneuver: cut higher ed and push some savings to voters through other ways. Paul Fain sees this:

No other state has this particular line item, but we can imagine other such tradeoffs in other areas. Cut public higher ed and spend more on pensions, or health care, or the penal system. Readers may recall my story about state budget priorities, and how higher ed can easily lose out.

The still-unfolding Alaska story also shows — concretely — how a university can respond to this pressure.

One last point: I’m still struck by Dunleavy’s line about the university system no longer being “all things to all people.” This sounds like a major effort to downgrade universities — not just by budget, but in their very structure. Universities are no longer universal in scope, but narrowed to certain particulars. We’ve seen echoes of this elsewhere, as when Wisconsin’s governor Walker sought to restrict that state’s post-secondary services to job training alone. It could be an emerging model of higher ed, somewhat unbundled and suited to new demographics. It could also fit a society that retreats from a commitment to universal post-secondary experience.

Meanwhile, my best wishes to Alaskans. And please share your information and reflections, those of you in or close to that state.

(thanks to numerous friends for sharing this one; cross-posted to my blog)

*Meanwhile, the governor also increased payouts to individuals through the Permanent Fund Dividend program (thanks to Don Moynihan).



Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, educator. Author of the FTTE report, UNIVERSITIES ON FIRE, and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.

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