Governor Walker discusses budget, education at ASUAF
Danny Fisher / Editor-in-Chief
Interim Chancellor Mike Powers described Alaska Governor Bill Walker as “frank, straightforward and courageous” this morning after Walker met with a group of about 20 UAF students and staff in the ASUAF office today to discuss education and the state budget. The public question-and-answer format meeting, which was organized by Leslie Drumhiller, ASUAF government relations officer, began at 9:40 and lasted for almost a half an hour.
The event was scheduled as one of the first of a series of meetings Walker had scheduled in Fairbanks for today, which also included a meeting with the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.
Students asked Walker questions concerning the budget deficit, funding for the University of Alaska system, the security of satellite campuses, and other concerns.
“We need to grow Alaska in a way that the university is a part of it,” Walker said. He discussed the budget deficit the state faces, describing it as a boat with a leak. To fix the leak, he said, Alaska legislature has “thrown in a pump, and that costs us $400,000 an hour to do,” he said. “Our university system will do well if we fix the hole in the boat.”
Alaska needs to diversify its revenue streams, according to Walker. Over time, the state has become over 90 percent dependent on oil. “That was not a wise thing to do,” he said. “We should have diversified long ago.” The governor cited agriculture as one option for development.
Walker also emphasized the value of the Arctic research being done at the University of Alaska, referring to the system as the greatest source for information about cold climates.
People look all around the world for information about the environment Alaskans live in, Walker said. “We are the best petri dish for cold-climate issues,” he said.
Getting Alaska graduates to work in the state and use their education to benefit the local economy is also important, Walker said. Getting more teachers from Alaska to work in the state and stay on longer will benefit all levels of education, and being able to hire locals for state positions would strengthen the economy, he said.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks is expected to see a $26 million budget shortfall, according to a Nov. 17 employee address from Chancellor Powers. This number is subject to change based on the state budget Walker released on Dec. 9, which announced a funding reduction to UAF of over $15.7 million.
Powers appreciated Walkers’ frank discussion, he said.
Board of Regents meetings have shown that a number of students are concerned about the vertical budget cuts — ones that affect specific departments or programs, rather than horizontal cuts that would reduce funding across the university — being discussed by administrators, Powers said. Although the legislature does not dictate the university’s spending directly, Arctic research is a priority according to Walker.
“If it comes to a low demand liberal arts program or a high-demand technical program, we’re going to have to look to the high demand,” Powers said regarding vertical cuts. The university will seek to integrate aspects of cut programs into other fields, he said.
Walker’s statements regarding developing Alaska human capital resonated with students at the event.
“I really like that he wants to put Alaskans to work and use Alaska talent,” Josh McNeal, a petroleum engineering student, said. “We have that here, it’s just a matter of developing it and utilizing it in the right ways.”
“I think he gave some considerate answers, and we asked a few really tough questions,” ASUAF President Mathew Carrick added.