University of Alaska leaders postpone decision on ‘financial exigency’

The university's board of regents delayed the decision to declare exigency — a bankruptcy-like state that allows quick staff cuts — for two weeks in hopes lawmakers will find a way to restore some funding.

By Yereth Rosen, Reuters - July 16, 2019
A view of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus from the Elvey building. (Clare Skelly / NASA / Goddard)

ANCHORAGE — Leaders of the University of Alaska, facing a 41 percent cut in state funding by the governor, on Monday postponed a decision to declare the academic equivalent of bankruptcy reorganization until the end of the month.

The university’s board of regents, convened in an emergency session, decided to wait for two more weeks to decide on whether to declare so-called financial exigency, which would allow rapid firing of employees, including tenured professors, and closure of programs and possibly entire campuses.

Regents said they wanted to see if the state legislature could return some of the money that Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy cut in a series of drastic line-item vetoes.

One state lawmaker attending the meeting was moved to tears over the university’s plight, calling it a “travesty.”

“This should have never happened,” said state Sen. Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican. “I’m not done, and we’re going to turn this situation around.”

The University of Alaska, with campuses in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau, is known for its Arctic, climate, geophysical, oceans and health programs.

Regents said the funding vetoes, made to a state budget in surplus, were shocking.

“This situation is really unprecedented and it’s difficult for everybody,” said regents chairman John Davies. “To our students, we will do our best to maintain classes.”

University President Jim Johnsen said he fears the governor will block any new legislative funding, as there were not enough votes last week to override his June 28 vetoes.

The governor now has “a position of pretty substantial strength,” Johnsen told the regents.

Dunleavy, in an Anchorage news conference held at the same time as the regents’ meeting, defended his vetoes of state spending on the university and other programs.

“Quite honestly I don’t think that my actions in following the constitution, in terms of a veto process, in trying to put together a budget that is going to be sustainable, is going to end up being a grounds for recall,” he said.