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Forum held to discuss university’s looming budget cuts

Kaz Alvarez / Sun Star Reporter

May 6, 2014

A panel of faculty members spoke to students about the University of Alaska’s struggle in facing a possible budget deficit of $10 million.

Student organizations Phi Sigma Alpha and the Socratic Society teamed up to give students an opportunity to learn more about the UA budget deficit. They brought Professor of Sociology Sine Anahita, Professor of Political Science and Northern Studies Jerry McBeath, and Alaska Representative Scott Kawasaki to present their knowledge and opinions on the situation. Assistant Professor of Political Science Alexander Hirsch facilitated the conversation.

The panel began by detailing the situation to the students, staff and faculty who had assembled in the Wood Center’s Multi-level Lounge. Part of the discussion was about the $2 million, annual payment toward bonds borrowed to replace the combined heat and power plant. The payment falls on the students to generate through fees or a tuition increase. The other part was on the deficit and how administrators are approaching it.

“The budget cuts are real and pending,” Anahita said. “Our goal at this point is to help the administration figure out how to minimize the negative impact of the cuts. I’m very interested in maintaining the quality of education at UAF.”

Currently, the budget deficit is not a set number, but it’s estimated to be $19 million.

“Whether it is an extreme amount of cuts or a small amount, campuses are talking about cuts,” Kawasaki said. “If you look at other universities across the United States, we have been lucky.”

The panel was prompted to provide instances of other heavy deficits. “Right as the oil started to flow, this campus had a $1 million deficit,” McBeath said. “Their approach was to go through and non-retain a number of faculty who had not yet reached tenure.”

Staff and faculty can be non-retained at the end of a fiscal year for reasons such as budget constraints.  They may be granted a final year, a terminal year, to continue working and allow them to find another job.

McBeath also detailed the campus-wide program review that targeted programs perceived to be weak and costly for elimination. This occurred when Joan Wadlow was UAF Chancellor. “This was a mildly intelligent but relatively political strategy,” McBeath said.

Anahita presented a document from the Budget Options Group committee that detailed five recommendations. The recommendations encouraged administrators to make significant reductions in target areas, explore opportunities for greater efficiencies, reduce the total number of UAF positions, look at outsourcing options and reduce the number of outsourced spaces in the Fairbanks area.

Anahita has also been researching social movement theories and how they can be used to approach the budget cuts. She later explained that social movements are simply collections of people who engage in some strategic action together.

“Students are the largest group in the university,” Anahita said. “You are educated. You are in a prime position to seize your power.”

Anahita also recommended that students advocate their needs alongside existing bodies such as the Faculty and Staff councils.

“As the ASUAF president elect, my main concern is, by shifting financial burden from cuts to students, you will be lowering student enrollment,” Matthew Carrick, senior Mathematics student said.

The panel agreed that a high quality education should not be inaccessible to incoming students.

“Yes, I don’t think budgeters down in Juneau fully understand the impact of reducing state share and putting responsibility on the students,” Kawasaki said. “This legislature wouldn’t allow funding for the power plant until the amendment was made.”

The panel discussed the current pressure on faculty to reduce time spent on research and writing and focus on teaching more classes. This will increase the number of sections offered of many classes but reduce the quality of UAF as a research institution.

“I resisted teaching more classes with all my might, because I would like to finish my third book,” Yelena Matusevich, Professor of Foreign Languages said. Matusevich primarily teaches French courses. “The memo said that research was practically irrelevant.”

Matusevich suggested that administration look first at money wasted on new technologies that offices never requested. Matusevich also asked the panel how tenured faculty can be removed when they become “dead weight.”

The consensus of the panel was that it is incredibly difficult to remove tenured faculty who no longer benefit the students or the department.

Anahita favored looking for cuts within the Athletics Department, particularly within their travel budget. “In 2008, $3.1 million was spent on travel,” Anahita said. “We bring other teams up to our university to compete because they cannot afford it.”

Kawasaki was opposed to this suggestion.

“What departments do you think will be vulnerable to an unplanned approach?” Carrick asked in regards to opinions stated that the administration does not have a good idea of how to deal with the budget cuts.

“Political Science,” McBeath said.

“I don’t think we should be cutting for the sake of making cuts,” Kawasaki said. “I think the regents and the students are the appropriate people to do this.”

Some students asked about the many other fees charged and if a review of any wasteful spending has been done. McBeath reminded the students in the audience that fees such as the General Technology Fee of $60 and Student Sustainability Fee of $20 were voted on during ASUAF elections. McBeath impressed upon students, again, to be their own advocates.

“I tell my students, yes, you should wake up,” Matusevich said. “It is a very sleepy campus. In France, there would have been a big movement already!”

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