How massive state budget cuts threaten Arctic research and rural public safety in Alaska

The cuts will hit state universities in Fairbanks and Anchorage, with globally significant Arctic programs, especially hard.

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University of Alaska Fairbanks campus photographed from the Elvey building in October 2017. The university is a global leader in Arctic research, but deep cuts from the state budget may change that. (Clare Skelly / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The University of Alaska system, known for its Arctic, climate and oceans research, will lose 41 percent of its state funding under budget vetoes announced on Friday by the state’s Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy.

Those cuts, which Dunleavy characterized as necessary to address the oil-dependent state’s budget gap, will be devastating, said University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen.

If not overturned by the legislature, a process that would require a three-quarters vote, the cuts “will strike an institutional and reputational blow from which we may likely never recover,” Johnsen said in said in an email sent Friday to students, faculty and staff.

The cuts will cause the university system will lose 1,300 employees out of its approximately 3,000-member workforce, Johnsen said in a news conference Friday. Furlough notices will be sent out imminently, he said, and the university is preparing to declare a state of “financial exigency” that would allow it to summarily dismiss tenured faculty and close programs and academic units, including possibly an entire campus.

“There’s no question that it would interfere without students’ educational process and their careers. I can’t sugar-coat this,” he said at the news conference.

Such drastic actions would inflict “a very negative impact on the state economy and the state as a whole for many years to come,” Johnsen said at the news conference.

“There is no strong state, there is no strong economy in the world that doesn’t have a strong higher-education institution or strong higher-education system,” he said.

The total cut will be $135 million, $5 million of which was in the budget passed by the legislature. Dunleavy, a Republican used his line-item veto power to cut the additional $130 million.

The cuts will fall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Anchorage and the statewide program. Community colleges and the university’s Juneau program were spared.

UAF is famous for its Arctic research. The campus is home to Arctic-focused institutions like the International Arctic Research Center, the Geophysical Institute, where research on permafrost, glaciers and other features of the far-north world is conducted, and the Institute of Arctic Biology.

The University of Alaska Anchorage also has several Arctic programs, including its Arctic engineering program, its Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies and its Arctic Domain Awareness Center, which is focused on maritime issues.

Scientists outside of Alaska expressed dismay at the Dunleavy cuts.

Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program and a contributing writer to Forbes, said the cuts were especially harmful to the climate-change research that is essential to rapidly warming Alaska and the wider world.

“Very important climate research institutions are located in the state of Alaska and within the university system,” Shepherd said in a column published online Sunday. “Like many other research programs and staff, they are probably vulnerable to a 41 percent cut at a time when knowledge production and transfer is needed.”

In his Friday news conference announcing the his decision on the state’s budget, vetoes, Dunleavy said defended the deep cut to the university system.

“This budget is going to impact all Alaskans. The University of Alaska, I have a lot of faith in. I know their leadership. I know many of the regents. I believe that they’re going to be able to work through this. And I believe they can turn the University of Alaska into, if not the finest university of the Arctic, in a few select areas. I don’t think they can be all things to all people,” he said.

“I do believe that the University of Alaska is resilient. I believe they have good leadership. And I say, give them a chance. I believe that they can turn the university into a smaller, leaner but still a very, very positive, productive university here in the northern hemisphere.”

Several other Dunleavy budget vetoes also targeted programs and people in Arctic Alaska. Among those were vetoes of appropriations made by the legislature to boost public safety in rural Alaska, a region known for high rates of violent crime and little service from law-enforcement agencies.

Dunleavy struck $3 million from the Village Public Safety Officer program in the fiscal 2020 budget and another $3 million from the program that had been approved by the legislature in a supplemental budget for the current fiscal year. That program, which puts local residents into law-enforcement roles, is operated by the Alaska State Troopers and is intended for villages where no troopers are stationed.

Dunleavy also vetoed legislative approval for a reopened Department of Law office in Utqiagvik, the nation’s northernmost community, and for a state prosecutor and paralegal who would staff that office. He eliminated funding approved by the legislature for operation of a center for youth offenders in Nome, thus closing down that center and eliminating all staff working there.

On the same day that Dunleavy unveiled his vetoes, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a public-safety emergency in rural Alaska and announced an infusion of $10.5 million in federal funds to help the state and Native organizations combat domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes.

Of the $10.5 that Barr said would be available within weeks, $6 million was for the state’s village public safety officer program, the same program targeted by Dunleavy’s cuts.

The announcement followed a visit by Barr to Alaska in May, where he met with Native leaders and toured Napaskiak, a village in the impoverished Yukon-Kuskoskwim Delta region in western Alaska.

“With this emergency declaration, I am directing resources where they are needed most and needed immediately, to support the local law enforcement response in Alaska Native communities, whose people are dealing with extremely high rates of violence,” Barr said in a statement.

Barr said he has directed Justice Department agencies to come up with plans to boost rural Alaska law enforcement. “Lives depend on it, and we are committed to seeing a change in this unacceptable, daily reality for Alaska Native people,” he said in the statement.