The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities is warning Alaska legislators that a 41 percent cut to the state university system’s budget could threaten its accreditation status.
“I write today to share my concern over the proposed reduction in funding, and urge you and your colleagues to ensure the University of Alaska campuses are provided adequate funding to continue the delivery of high-quality public education to the citizens of Alaska,” Sonny Ramaswamy, the commission's president, wrote in a letter to the Alaska Legislature. “Failure to properly fund these institutions could have disastrous effects, including the potential loss of accreditation, that could be felt for generations. I urge you to please reconsider this year’s drastic budget reductions being proposed.”
Other groups have urged Alaska’s Legislature to override a $130 million system budget veto by Republican governor Mike Dunleavy. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, for example, wrote to the Alaska Legislature earlier this week, “I understand that Alaska is grappling with tough decisions and weighing competing priorities. But gutting the state’s universities is a short-term step in the wrong direction, one that would trigger a series of damaging long-term aftershocks to the state’s social fabric and economic future.”
Still, the commission’s intervention is unusual in that accreditors typically do not weigh in on state budget and policy debates. Ramaswamy’s letter is a sign of the scale of the cuts.
Abel Bult-Ito, president of Alaska’s American Federation of Teachers and American Association of University Professors-affiliated faculty union, said in a statement that when the commission sends a letter to the Alaska Legislature “to address concerns about the effects of a $135 million cut to the university on the accreditation of our three separately accredited universities, we should all pay attention.”
Ramaswamy said that the proposed 41 percent reduction in state funding to Alaska’s public institutions poses “material and significant risk to the quality of education provided to the students within those institutions.” If student success and achievement “are demonstrably affected, it could potentially jeopardize the accreditation status of these institutions.”
Regulatory agencies and others “recognize that accredited institutions offer universally accepted degrees and programs,” Ramaswamy added, saying that only students at accredited institutions are eligible for federal aid and grants.
Of course, losing federal funding is a worst-case scenario for any institution.
Mitchell added that like “all state university systems, Alaska’s specializes in research and education in areas unique to its state’s needs, such as, in your case, fisheries, mining, petroleum and natural-resource development.” And “all of those programs will suffer if these cuts are made.”
State lawmakers are meeting this week to decide whether to override Dunleavy’s budget cuts, which go beyond those to higher education. The governor has said that the statewide cuts are for the health of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which provides state residents a dividend based on oil revenue.
University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen argued for an override even before Dunleavy's veto. He explained in a local op-ed that the Legislature had already passed a budget that included a "reasonable $5 million general fund reduction" for the university system.
“Make no mistake,” he continued, that the university “cannot absorb an additional, substantial reduction in state general funds without abruptly halting numerous student career pathways midstream, eliminating services or shutting down community campuses or universities.” An additional reduction of even $10 million, on top of the $51 million in cuts the system has endured previously, “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.” One or more universities might be forced to close, he also said.
The system has already frozen hiring and all travel and is lobbying for a veto override. It will require the support of 45 legislators out of 60 total.