James Johnsen’s letter to the University of Alaska system went out like a flare. “It is with grave concern for the future of our university and our state that I share with you devastating news of the budget Gov. Mike Dunleavy released this morning,” Johnsen, the president of the system, wrote in the June 28 note to members of the university. The governor planned to cut $130 million from the school’s budget. Combined with a previous $5 million cut, that made for 41 percent of the system’s budget gone in one year.
Johnsen implored the Alaskan legislature to override the veto. (The legislature, for its part, has struggled even to agree on a meeting location to vote on the override.) He wanted students, faculty, and staff to make the university’s case as well: to laud its programs, and emphasize its contributions to Alaska’s economy. But in the meantime, Johnsen wrote, he needed to immediately implement furlough plans, and he needed to prepare a plan for financial exigency—which would allow the university to begin the process of removing tenured faculty. Roughly 1,300 faculty and staff jobs could be lost as a result of the funding cut.
The scramble playing out in Alaska represents the worst-case scenario for public colleges. It has not been uncommon to see significant cuts by states to higher-education funding—particularly during economic slowdowns—but “it is uncommon to do it in one fell swoop,” Nick Hillman, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told me. Alaska had a deficit, and the governor had promised not to raise taxes to deal with it, so he chose a favored punching bag to take the hit instead: higher education.