With a budget veto override falling short, the University of Alaska and its Arctic programs face a dire future

"We will no longer be the Arctic university and be important in this world as we are today."

By Yereth Rosen - July 15, 2019
University of Alaska Fairbanks campus photographed from the Elvey building in October 2017. (Clare Skelly / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Alaska lawmakers failed to override budget vetoes made by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that strip 41 percent of state funding for the University of Alaska and other agencies and services important to Arctic science, environmental protection and residents.

While a vote to overturn the vetoes passed overwhelmingly among the lawmakers to attended a special session in Juneau, there were not enough attending to meet the threshold for override. Votes taken on July 10 resulted in a 37-1 approval for override, but 45 of the 60 Alaska legislators needed to agree to overturn the vetoes. There were attempts to reschedule the override votes, but the July 12 deadline passed before that could be accomplished.

A group of Republicans who support the Republican governor refused to attend the Juneau session and met instead in a middle school in Wasilla, Dunleavy’s hometown and the site where he had ordered the special session to be held.

For the university system, known internationally for its Arctic and northern climate research, failure of the veto override creates a dire situation. The board of regents was scheduled to meet on Monday, July 15 to start the process of financial exigency, a bankruptcy-like status that would allow the university to rapidly fire employees, even tenured professors, and shut down programs.

Everything is on the table for cutting, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said in a news conference after the failed override vote. Furlough notices have already gone out to 2,500 employees, with layoffs to follow. No employee is safe, Johnsen said. “I’m certainly not, nor is anyone else,” he said. Possibly cut will be entire programs, some of the 13 community colleges and entire campuses, though even that step would not be enough to absorb the losses caused by the vetoes. The cost of operating the University of Alaska Anchorage campus is $104 million, “so that doesn’t get you there,” he said.

The $130 million vetoed by Dunleavy, on top of the $5 million previously trimmed by the legislature, will snowball into bigger losses for the university system, Johnsen said.

“There are going to be ripple tidal waves, if you will, effects of that cut on enrollment and the tuition that comes from enrollment and also on research grants and contracts because there’ll be fewer faculty out there competing for those grants and contracts,” he said.

Larry Hinzman, vice chancellor for research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that ongoing projects will likely be completed but that loss of state funding will hurt the chances for starting new research.

Every $1 spent by the state on the university returns about $7 in grant money from other sources, like the National Science Foundation or other federally supported agencies, Hinzman said. But the state must make the initial investment, he said. “You can’t write proposals using federal dollars,” he said. “We need state funding to write the proposals to bring the federal funds in.”

Scientists around the world and organization like the International Permafrost Association and the American Geophysical Union have expressed dismay at the governor’s vetoes, said Hinzman, who is president of the International Arctic Science Committee.

The Arctic plays “a really dynamic role” in determining conditions in the rest of the world, he said. “So our research really matters a lot to other research around the national and around to world to understand the global climate dynamics.” Scientists around the world depend on the University of Alaska’s research, he said. “We really understand the Arctic,” he said.

Several of the lawmakers meeting in Juneau used floor debate time to argue passionately on behalf of the university system and its role in the Arctic.

“I got emails from France, scientists over there that said the university system in Alaska is the leader in climate change research. I received the same thing from Algeria, another email, saying Alaska is the Arctic university. And with these reductions, it will no longer be the Arctic university,” said state Rep. Steve Thompson of Fairbanks.

“The important work that they do will go away. Those top scientists that have international and federal grants to do their research and their work on climate change and arctic policy, They’re going to take those grants and go to other places. We will no longer be the Arctic university and be important in this world as we are today. Those type of things just break my heart. I cannot believe what we are doing her with these vetoes that are here.”

State Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican and a former history professor, said the financial exigency declaration is dreaded in academia.

The vetoes and the likely resulting declaration of financial exigency are devastating, Stevens said. “Tremendous blow to the institution and to the reputation of our university. These damages are permanent, will be permanent, if we allow this to pass, they are irreparable,” he said. “It’s important that we recognize the research element of the university, the services the university provides to all of Alaska, and frankly beyond Alaska, to all of the country and the world in Arctic issues.”

A former UAF provost, in a column in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, speculated that the governor is using his veto power to deliberately sabotage the university and its research.

“UA has excelled at climate and Arctic research. Some prominent conservatives deny the reality of human-caused climate change, and so curtailing UA research is great from their perspective,” said the column, by Susan Henrichs, who spent more than 36 years at UAF before retiring last year. A second benefit to conservatives, she wrote, would be the removal of liberal-leaning faculty and staff members from Alaska and thus from the voting rolls.

Dunleavy’s press secretary did not respond to requests for comment on the university vetoes.

The University of Alaska system is the most prominent of Arctic-related victim of Dunleavy’s vetoes, accounting for about a third of the total dollars the governor cut from the budget on June 28, but it is not the only one.

Many of his vetoes were for programs important to rural Alaska, including the regions north of the Arctic Circle.

Among the budget items he eliminated were several projects and initiatives aimed at increasing public safety in rural Alaska

He vetoed money the legislature intended to for a state prosecutor and assistant to be assigned to Utqiagvik, currently lacking any such service. He eliminated funding for a youth detention and treatment center in Nome; unless the money is restored, the facility will shut down. He vetoed a total of $6 million for the Village Public Safety Office program run by the Alaska State Troopers. He also vetoed all state funding to the Alaska Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer-staffed group that helps search for downed and missing aircraft and promotes aviation-safety education.

Other vetoes affected rural and Alaska Native welfare more broadly.

Dunlevy eliminated state funding for public broadcasting, the only source of outside information for some rural communities. He eliminated state funding for the Alaska Council on the Arts, an organization that provides grants to Native arts; Dunleavy’s action, if not reversed, makes Alaska the only U.S. state without an arts council.

Related, but technically separate from the vetoes, Dunleavy’s administration emptied out the entire balance of the state’s Power Cost Equalization Fund, potentially eliminating the program that subsidizes power costs in rural areas where energy costs are extremely high. Costs of energy to heat and light homes and buildings in Arctic Alaska are exponentially higher than in the state’s urban areas.

Even though the veto override effort failed, several lawmakers are planning to restore some funding through new appropriations legislation.

State Rep. Neal Foster, a Democrat from Nome and co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, said he intends to help draw up a new bill to be placed on the floor within a week. In a column published in the Nome Nugget newspaper, Foster described many of the veto effects on northwestern Alaska. Among them, he said, is a now-precarious position for the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Northwest Satellite Campus in Nome.

“The fight to reclaim our state and protect rural interests is far from over,” Foster said in his column.