Chancellor discusses perilous budget
The university budget for 2018 and the actions of the legislature were up for discussion at a public forum held by Interim Chancellor Dana Thomas last Tuesday. As the state addresses a financial crisis and massive deficit, the university is preparing for yet another series of program cuts to be scheduled this spring as part of phase two of Strategic Pathways, the plan to streamline university structure.
Thomas expressed concern regarding further program cuts.
“We have thinned out all of the low enrollment, less efficient programs and we are at meat now,” Thomas said. “We have programs on the table that we would prefer not to give up, but have to make difficult choices because of our budget situation.”
The UA Board of Regents requested a general fund budget of $341 million, $16 million more than a budget proposed by Governor Bill Walker. While the governor’s proposal keeps the university’s budget the same as last fiscal year, university administrators are concerned that won’t be enough.
UAF uses approximately 50 percent of the university’s general fund, according to university officials.
The state house supports the governor’s number and has finalized their work on the state’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, according to Miles Baker, associate vice president of government relations. However, the state senate is proposing a five percent cut to the university budget, with the final number sitting at $309 million.
The Senate has suggested a 5 percent reduction this year, 4 percent next year and 3 percent the following year, according to Thomas.
“Just the flat budget is challenging,” Thomas said. “But with the minus five, then minus four and then three, that would be very difficult.”
The first senate finance committee hearing to discuss the state’s operating budget was scheduled to be held last Wednesday, Baker said. No announcements have been made yet.
University faculty and staff are concerned about the drop in funding as these changes will directly affect them. In fiscal year 2016, over half of UAF’s operating expenditures were spent on salaries and benefits for university employees.
“We’re no longer talking about investment, we’re talking about plugging holes in academic programs,” said Abel Bult-Ito, a biology professor. “We’re at a point where this university is in a real crisis because we’re losing the critical mass in many academic programs.”
One of the biggest discussion points of the night was the Regents’ decision to retain the athletics program while continuing with Strategic Pathways, which will likely seek cuts to academics.
“Are we really going to cut departments like sociology and other important programs but save the expensive sports programs?” said Sine Anahita, a sociology professor. “At some point we’ve got to be the conscience for our community.”
Thomas agreed the Board of Regents needs to understand that by saving athletics, they are putting other programs at risk.
“That is largely the decision by the board to retain athletics at its current level and funding athletics is largely what that’s about,” Thomas said. “So you understand, there’s no hidden agenda here.”
Bill Schnabel, director of the water and environmental research center, was concerned about the Board of Regents ultimate decision to drop the planned cuts to athletics.
“So we floated that but then Board of Regents said no,” Schnabel said. “So now we’re in the position of do we need to then look at something else that we think the Board of Regents is going to accept or do we have an opportunity to push back?”
UA President Jim Johnsen and Chancellor Thomas will be holding open meetings with groups that will affected by phase two of Strategic Pathways. These meetings are scheduled for April 4 and 5 in the Globe room of the Elvey building starting at 8:30 a.m and continue into the afternoon.