As Alaska Slashes Funds to Higher Education, Will Other States Follow?

The state of Alaska has unleashed a grizzly bear of a problem for the lower forty-eight. By slashing public spending on the University of Alaska by 41 percent, the governor and the legislature have defied one of the settled rules of American politics: Thou shalt not threaten public higher education. What if other states follow Alaska’s example?

Many states are burdened with excess branches of state universities and supernumerary state colleges. Under-enrolled, larded with poor-quality programs, thick with make-work offices and administrators, and host to thinly disguised political operations, these institutions burden the taxpayer and provide little by way of worthwhile education. Yet they are seemingly immortal. That’s because they are usually spread across the state in a manner that gives every state legislative district a stake in protecting its own and because a college campus is a ready-made organized interest group.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

New York State has 62 counties and, coincidentally, the State University of New York has 63 separate campuses. Not every state has such a widespread commitment to higher education. The University of Wisconsin has only fourteen branch campuses in addition to its main campus in Madison. But when the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced in March 2018 that to close a $4.5 million deficit, it would eliminate thirteen under-enrolled majors, it ran into a buzz saw of criticism. A year later it partially reversed itself and saved six of the thirteen programs: French, German, History, Geography, Geoscience, and two arts concentrations.

Some states have succeeded up to a point in divesting themselves of less profitable programs. Ten years ago, the Indiana State University weeded out 48 academic programs. The University of Southern Maine recently cut its programs in American and New England Studies and Modern and Classical Languages and Literature.

Cuts, Then Recriminations

Such cuts are never easy for the institution, the faculty, or the students, and they are typically followed by years of recriminations. Nearly everyone can think of a better way to balance the budget—and it is surely true that public universities are rife with highly-paid do-nothing administrators. The first step in balancing any university’s budget should be to eliminate every diversity dean, ethnic counselor, and grievance advocate on the payroll. The second step should be to eliminate every “co-curricular” position aimed at promoting “student engagement” and other forms of political activism. Leave the forlorn German professor or geographer alone until you have swept the non-academic stables.

It is an open question whether that means eliminating sports programs and the expensive tutoring that often comes with them. These programs undeniably attract students who would not otherwise enroll, but at what cost?  Because of Title IX, colleges and universities must field a large variety of women’s sports teams, many of which attract little attention. Cutting men’s teams seems to come easily to college administrators who might flinch from the prospect of shutting down a women’s badminton program.

The obstacles to cutting and consolidating in higher education are everywhere. When the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities in April 2018 proposed to consolidate the state’s twelve community colleges, the regional accrediting agency issued a flat no. Such a change, said the head of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), would create “potential for a disorderly environment for students.” One might think the disorder of a financially failing system would be even more worrisome, but NEASC pleased quite a few opponents of the consolidation, including the officials of the American Association of University Professors.

Indeed, wherever and whenever some political or educational leader declares that it is time to pare back the runaway costs of higher education, an organized opposition almost instantly appears. More often than not, it succeeds in stopping the plan.

Will Alaska be different? All we can say at this point is that both sides are assembling their forces. Governor Mike Dunleavy has imposed line-item vetoes on Alaska’s 2020 budget totaling $135 million in cuts for the state’s three public universities. The Alaska legislature had an opportunity to override the vetoes but failed to find the necessary votes. The matter now rests in the hands of the Board of Regents, which is weighing a variety of approaches. It could shut some regional campuses; narrow the curricula of the three universities; or consolidate all the universities into a single entity.

Many Years of Significant Cuts

I know several faculty members at the University of Alaska in Anchorage and have heard first-hand their distress. The 41 percent cut follows several years of significant reductions, in the range of ten to fifteen percent annually. Governor Dunleavy—I quote a faculty member who under the circumstances I won’t name—“insists that no cuts be made to the small campus in Juneau or to any of the other community campuses strewn across the state, which are inefficient and very expensive, and the University president [Jim Johnson] insists that no cuts be made to his 28% ‘statewide’ budget, which does not contribute to instruction or research.”

In short, with other options off the table, the 41 percent cut is likely to tear the heart out of the liberal of the University. It isn’t hard to imagine that such an excision will meet with the approval of many conservative and libertarian voters in the state for whom the “liberal arts” have become indistinguishable from progressive propaganda. They are profoundly mistaken about this, but it is late in the day to separate the gold from the pyrite.

Another of my acquaintances on the faculty blames the larger problem on budgetary bloat. Alaska plainly had it easy when oil revenues were so high that the state could send an annual subsidy to every citizen and heedlessly build out a vast educational bureaucracy. Now in leaner times, the bureaucracy protects itself and throws the core educational purposes into the Bering Sea.

The University of Alaska at Anchorage’s Faculty Senate issued two reports on the situation, the most recent of which enunciates its opposition to consolidating “the university system into one accredited university.” It believes the costs savings will not be realized, and the result will be a “student and faculty exodus.” In a state that already has shortages of highly skilled labor, such departures would be damaging. But is the Faculty Senate engaged in a classic strategy of featherbedding? Is it attempting to protect duplicate jobs that could be easily erased?

One of the Faculty Senate’s recommendations, “prioritizing instruction” in the effort to balance the budget, is surely right. Another is a call to eliminate the University of Alaska’s $54 million “statewide” budget, i.e., the supernumerary expense of running all three state universities as a “system.” The Faculty Senate believes the three universities—Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Southeast—would be better as three entirely separate entities. It is hard to disagree. Alaskans get nothing at all for their $54 million annual expense in supporting extra administrators to oversee the three campuses together.

It isn’t hard for an outsider to spot educational expenses that could be trimmed with no damage to education itself. In 2017 The Northern Light reported that four of the highest salaried positions in the state’s public payroll were university administrators. Governor Dunleavy may well have read the Must Read Alaska report in February, “University enrollment dropping, salaries through the roof,”which detailed the eye-popping salaries of university officials. The article calculates that enrollment fell 20 percent during the five years from 2014 to 2018, and the University of Alaska Anchorage’s six-year graduation rate is only 29.1 percent.

Paying No Price for Damage?

Alaska’s public higher education system is thus a soft target. It may have pockets of excellence, and there may be a powerful case to identify and preserve those pockets. I believe there is. But the system administrators have squandered years of opportunities to fix the underlying problems. My guess is that Governor Dunleavy’s cuts will go through, and he will pay no real political price for damaging the university system.

If so, will other states follow suit? Will the grizzly head south? States vary so much in their economic circumstances that it seems unlikely that any will immediately seize on Alaska’s example. But the next time a governor needs to close a yawning gap in the state budget, the idea of trimming the public universities will not seem so far-fetched. If it was done once, it will be done again.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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6 thoughts on “As Alaska Slashes Funds to Higher Education, Will Other States Follow?

  1. My guess is they will come up with more money, to avoid completely eviscerating the university, but there will still be huge cuts that cause great damage. The governor has already said that the “branch” operations that Peter Wood would like to cut, won’t be. Instead, I expect that whatever exists of “elitism” will be fair game for the populist Republicans.

    It is not true that cutting public universities is a new idea; it is easily verifiable that it has been a common practice nationwide for decades whenever there is a recession. It is easier to jack up welfare at the expense of public higher education, then jack up tuition to make up the difference. And of course, then people scream about “exorbitant” tuition increases, as if there is much mystery about it. Not the whole story, but most of it, as anyone who works with actual public higher education budgets knows.

    Perhaps Peter Wood is right that future Republicans in other states (and perhaps Democrats too) will try this, destroying their public universities to save money, or out of spite, or likely both. There is certainly growing hatred of higher education among a huge segment on the right (with some company on the left).

    I doubt that we will see anything quite like Alaska — a state spending down its unusual patrimony (the oil money) even as it declines in value, while vanadalizing its main hope for a future economy (higher education). Even in Alaska, a sizable majority of the legislature doesn’t want this — 37 out of 60 voted to override the veto — but that’s not enough when 45 are needed according to the state constitution.

    If the cuts go through, it will be a very interesting experiment. Republicans — Governor Dunleavy — hating higher education enough so much that they are willing to destroy their public systems. Maybe it will not really matter all that much? Or maybe they really are out to vandalize themselves, and will succeed?

    I do know this, the vast American higher education “deserts,” primarily red areas, are falling behind the metropolitan, education-rich areas. The mediocre regional campuses that Peter Wood seems to despise may not be so much, but they are all a lot of those places have. They may be more than Peter Wood thinks. The Governor Dunleavy types certainly seem to think so. It’s too bad, in my opinion, that they seem to have it in for the more “elite” metropolitan institutions in the places that overall are “red.”

    As I say, Alaska is on the verge of performing a very interesting experiment. Personally, I don’t think that this is the way to make Alaska, or America great.

    1. “the vast American higher education “deserts,” primarily red areas, are falling behind the metropolitan, education-rich areas.”

      People in the “metropolitan, education-rich areas” also drive fancier and more expensive vehicles. Is that the cause of these areas prosperity or a consequence of it? Likewise, is the largess of higher education the cause of these region’s prosperity or a consequence of it? Do degrees in Women’s Studies make people prosperous, or is it that only the prosperous can afford to pursue them?

      “I expect that whatever exists of “elitism” will be fair game for the populist Republicans.”

      What I’m waiting for are the consequences of the 2020 election and the FY-2022 Federal Budget. Trump is already saying there will be budget cuts in his second term, and the 2018 election was largely a purge of House RINOs — Populist (TEA Party) Republicans will win back a lot of those seats as Antifa won’t play well in Peoria.

      With higher education already openly hostile to half the country, and with heaven only knows how much thuggery occurring over the next 16 months, I can see Congress eviscerating Federal Financial Aid — much as it did to aid to South Vietnam in the early 1970’s. I’m fully expecting what happened in Alaska to occur on the national stage.

      1. Let me put it like this. It’s possible that MIT and Harvard and Yale are an effect of New England’s prosperity. Or that they are more a cause than an effect. I would bet on the latter. Or more likely, a positive feedback loop. Ditto with all the great academic centers and California.

        A good many of the so-called conservatives seem to want to turn their states, the whole country, into an academic desert. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to me the way to Make America Great Again. Actually, almost all of these people want their own children to go to college. They themselves are college educated, most often with fancy degrees. When their own kids start going to welding and plumbing school instead of Harvard and Stanford, I’ll start to believe them.

        My actual guess is that Alaska will restore most of the budget cuts. They seem very close to getting three quarters of the legislature to vote for this. Maybe they’ll fail.

        Maybe Congress will do what you predict. I like the analogy to the betrayal of South Vietnam. One of the more shameful episodes in American history.

        As I say, not the way to Make America Great Again. I’m not sure if that is what you want. But for all I know, Trump and the current Republicans might be capable of it. I hope not. And, I wouldn’t bet on it. In the end, I don’t think even most of the conservative higher education bashers are that nihilistic. As I said, they have their kids to think about.

        The business about Women’s Studies is getting to be kind old. A straw man, so to speak.

  2. Despite what your friends in Anchorage told you the smaller campuses are often the most efficient campuses in the system. It is an old story. The Anchorage faculty want to throw the smaller campuses under the bus to save themselves.

    The governor’s budget will destroy any chance of real reform. The likely result will be preservation and enhancement of the centralized bureaucracy. Teaching and research will suffer with only limited savings to the state. Alaska really has three separate universities with separate accreditation grouped under an administrative mothership that is mainly parasitic. Our state is very spread out and would be best served with a more decentralized system.

  3. “The University of Southern Maine recently cut its programs in American and New England Studies and Modern and Classical Languages and Literature.”

    While keeping it’s BA in Women & Gender Studies, along with what appears to be 202 classes (or sections thereof) in some aspect of “social justice.”

    This is the same USM that offered a one-credit “popup” course for going down to DC to protest the Kavanaugh confirmation, with a bonus to those willing to get arrested. I am not making this up, see:

  4. “In short, with other options off the table, the 41 percent cut is likely to tear the heart out of the liberal of the University. It isn’t hard to imagine that such an excision will meet with the approval of many conservative and libertarian voters in the state for whom the “liberal arts” have become indistinguishable from progressive propaganda. They are profoundly mistaken about this, but it is late in the day to separate the gold from the pyrite.”

    Are they mistaken?!?

    While not established until 1917, the University of Alaska is a Land Grant University, and one of the biggest initial questions under the Morrill Act was if these newly-established Land Grant Colleges could even teach the “liberal arts”, as the mission was to teach “A&M” — Scientific Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (i.e. engineering). And then, starting with what is now Framingham State University and Horace Mann, states established a network of “Normal Schools” (Teacher’s Colleges) to provide schoolteachers for their children.

    Publicly-supported higher education has always had an explicit vocational interest, i.e. getting junior a job. States have supported these institutions for this reason, and it’s why students attend them. And prior to 1980, when few people had college degrees, a humanities degree opened doors and hence had a vocational value. — but now that everyone has one it doesn’t.

    Remember that one can not eat gold — gold’s only value is what others are willing to exchange for it. And hence, to many, it doesn’t matter if the degree is gold or pyrite as — either way — it’s a heavy millstone around the graduate’s neck. Having a degree precludes easy entry into the trades, while not having the right degree precludes other options and the graduate winds up over-educated and under-employed, often at little better than minimum wage.

    Hence even if there were gold in the “liberal arts” — and we all know that there is a lot that isn’t — to many it’s a moot question as they can’t eat gold. Some 42% of Millennials with student loans regret having gone to college, and a truly interesting figure would be a breakdown on their majors. Throw in the roughly half of college students who never graduate and you have a sizable percentage of the population that doesn’t value what little gold that does exist.

    And as gold only has the value that others accord it, what is it’s value?

    If the gold doesn’t get junior a job, what’s it’s value?

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