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There is wide, justifiable concern about the recently announced cuts in state funding to the University of Alaska, cuts described as “shocking” by the chancellor of the system's main campus.

It is a 41 percent cut in state support, a reduction of $130 million, and the immediate response has been to declare six-week furloughs for employees, with “financial exigency” – what IHE’s Matt Reed aptly calls “the academic-budgeting equivalent of martial law” – almost certainly to follow.

A cut this big, this sudden is sure to be hugely disruptive, threatening entire programs, rendering tenure meaningless in terms of job security, and arresting ongoing research including vital research into climate change

There’s many who see this event as a sign of things to come, a “bellwether” in Matt Reed’s words. 

I understand where they’re coming from, but I disagree. What’s happening in Alaska is more of a swan song than a bellwether. Everything Alaska is experiencing has been done before, only more slowly.

It is interesting to note that Alaska is one of the relatively rare state universities that could be hurt so significantly by such a sudden cut. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, according to University of Alaska Anchorage chancellor Cathy Sandeen, a full 40 percent of the institutional budget comes from the state, which makes the cut so significant to the bottom line.

But even after the cut, the proportion of state funding in Alaska will be larger than that at places like the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, (both of which are under 15 percent funded by the state) and the University of Illinois, which has taken a 48 percent cut in funding since 2000. 

The College of Charleston, my most recent employer, receives less than 12 percent of its budget from the state of South Carolina. Now, a 41 percent cut there would be a big problem because the institution lives hand to mouth already, but it would be “only” $10 million in real dollars.

Alaska is a bit of a unique case, a socialist paradise where oil extraction revenues result in annual checks to individuals as part of the Alaska Permanent Fund. The cuts to the university and other public services are part of an effort by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to balance the state budget without reducing the size of those handouts. In fact, the amount distributed through the fund this year will increase. 

In fact, what the University of Alaska is experiencing in one fell swoop is what every other state has been undergoing over a longer period of time. It is a sudden death rather than a lingering one, but let’s not overlook that there’s already plenty of bodies in the morgue.

What has died is Clark Kerr’s notion of the “Multiversity,” his word to describe the modern research university, particularly the public research university as embodied by the University of California he once oversaw and the Land-Grant institutions spread across the country. 

Kerr conceived of the multiversity as both a place that undergraduate students went to learn, and “a prime instrument of national purpose,” that purpose being the production of new knowledge, “the most important factor in economic and social growth.” Kerr recognized the tensions in these roles, an one of the aims of his book The Uses of the University, first published in 1963, was to delineate these multiple purposes and alert people to the tensions in the hope that these dual needs could continue to be met.

It would take a more detailed accounting to pinpoint when the notion of the multiversity was truly abandoned, but it’s been gone for quite some time. Alaska is no bellwether on that front. 

Speaking of the Alaska university system, Gov. Dunleavy said, “I don’t believe they can be all things to all people.” His budget explicitly prioritizes the Permanent Fund dividend over public services. Raising taxes is not on the table. He is simply saying, we’re not doing this full research university thing anymore.

But is this any different than Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2016 attempting to change the language behind the Wisconsin Idea? The Wisconsin Idea with its focus on the university as a benefit to the entire state through its education, research, and extension work, was once a model for the country. Walker sought to remove language about the “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” from the mission statement and replace them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” 

And then lied about it. While Walker failed to change the language, he and the Republican legislature managed to gut the principle, leading to tremendous upheaval within the UW system, including an episode at UW-Stevens Point where entire program cuts to the liberal arts in the name of better aligning the institution with workforce needs were first proposed and then rescinded, a bruising fight which will leave permanent scars. Some version of this has gone on in many other states, usually without much attention.

Tell me, is what Gov. Dunleavy of Alaska is saying any different than what Bill Gates has planned with his Postsecondary Value Commission, which will explicitly measure the worth of an institution by the earning power of individual graduates? 

If universities were still functioning according to the multiverse ideal would we be in this situation?

Public research universities have been maintaining their status as multiversities through a combination of student tuition subsidizing faculty without external funding, and adjunct labor. I experienced this firsthand at Clemson as non-tenurable lecturers making $25k a year taught nearly three-quarters of the class sections in the English department, allowing tenured faculty the necessary time to write and publish. This is by no means a unique situation. It is also a structure in which only one-third to one-quarter of the faculty are allowed access to the work of the multiversity. 

Consider the bind institutions were put in. States were reducing the funding necessary to be a functioning university, but the only way to increase available revenue (other than raising tuition) was to pursue external research dollars, which meant chasing prestige, and requiring faculty to spend the bulk of their time on seeking out that money. Schools which could have and should have happily chugged along fulfilling their missions as regional institutions had to try to compete with the big boys, a competition they were always destined to lose, but had no choice but to play.

Now here we are. Or, rather, here we’ve been.

Gov. Dunleavy of Alaska has made plain in an instant the priorities that state legislatures elsewhere have been living for a couple of decades. Higher education is not a priority relative to things like low taxes. It cannot be all things. It hasn’t been for some time now. The question is if anything can shock us back to a collective belief in public universities as a public good.

I can’t see it, to be honest. The bulk of the energy in higher ed is in free community college[1], a cause which is much easier to rally around because of its explicit link to workforce preparation. Even adopting a Sanders-esque or Warren-ish debt cancellation/free college policy will lead to much greater involvement at the federal, rather than state level, and I have no doubt that the federal money will have to be used on funding students and instruction.

Who knows, that could be a good thing relative to the status quo, though it would be a far cry from the past ideal as embodied in the Wisconsin Idea. But after decades of penny wise and pound foolish behavior that neglected to value the deep and abiding contributions of a robust public higher education system at the state-level, maybe it’s the best we can do.

It’s possible we’ve simply reached the end of the lifespan of the multiversity. Some private colossi will continue to roam, and some of the most elite state flagships may be able to muddle along. We will never fully recognize the absence of great public research universities because we will not know enough to miss what never came into existence in the first place, but that lack will be profound. I do not know what will fill the holes. The Trump Administration has been reducing the amount of money available for basic research, so I don’t think we can count on the government to do it. Where will new knowledge come from? Not our universities, that's for certain.

It’s not that there’s no money available in the world. There seems to be a bottomless appetite to fund Silicon Valley startups which have a shot at becoming Internet unicorns and providing a return on investment, language identical to that which Bill Gates describes the purpose of a college degree.

I’m saddened by the news out of Alaska, but I honestly think it’s a story we’ve all been living for a while now.


[1]I’m for it.