Standing before a room full of reporters on Tuesday, Governor Mike Dunleavy of Alaska let go of the podium he’d been gripping, spreading his hands wide as he announced the agreement he had reached with the state’s university system. He said the two sides of the negotiation had started “a little bit apart,” but they had worked toward the middle. The middle they’d arrived at was a $70 million budget cut to the university system spread over the next three years.
It seemed a small victory. In June, Dunleavy cut $130 million in state funding for the university—or about 40 percent of the system’s budget. A cut like that in one fell swoop was unprecedented. There were fears of layoffs and campus closures. The system’s Board of Regents declared financial exigency—essentially bankruptcy—to give itself room to more easily fire tenured faculty. The deal signed this week assuaged some of those fears, at least providing the University of Alaska with some clarity on its future. “This deal provides a great deal of certainty,” John Davies, the chair of the board, said during the press conference.
What is certain is that the university will still have a significant budget cut over the next three years. The improvement is that the bleeding from this cut can be more easily managed. “It won’t be painless, but it’s better manageable pain,” said Luis Maldonado, the vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. And there is still some uncertainty left in the wake of this deal, for both the school and its students. Typically, when colleges lose state support, some of the costs are transferred to the students by way of tuition increases. For prospective students who may be looking to attend the university, not knowing how much it will cost three years from now may seem a daunting prospect. “That complicates future planning,” Maldonado told me.