University of Alaska students, staff on edge due to impending budget cuts

People express their views at a University of Alaska student-initiated rally with the Save Our State coalition at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska, Tuesday, July 9, 2019, in response to budget vetoes by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The University of Alaska is bracing for a 41 percent cut in state funding after legislators failed to override Dunleavy’s line-item budget vetoes Wednesday. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News via AP)
On the day the Legislature unsuccessfully attempted to override Governor Mike Dunleavy’s line-item veto, University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) biology professor Kat Milligan-Mhyre wasn’t taking the news well.

“I cried in my office this morning,” she said. “I’ll be completely honest about that.”

The University of Alaska is preparing to absorb a 41 percent cut in state funding. At the Anchorage campus, administrators estimate they will have to lay off 700 employees and eliminate more than a third of the school’s academic programs.

Milligan-Mhyre has been at UAA for just under four years. An Inupiaq woman originally from Kotzebue, she taught in the Lower 48 for a couple decades before returning to her home state to give back.

“During that 20 years, I felt incredibly isolated, and I didn’t want Alaska Native students to go through that,” Milligan-Mhyre said, holding back tears. “So now that we’re facing this chronic budget problem that is also a crisis. I have to decide whether my staying in Alaska is gonna make it harder for Alaska Native students to get a good education.”

UAA has seen budget cuts for at least as long as Milligan-Mhyre has been a professor there, but she says this year’s cut is unprecedented. She’s the sole breadwinner in her household and says she’s considering leaving the state because of the uncertainty over the university’s future.

That uneasiness is shared among many students at UAA. Several students watched live, as legislators made passionate arguments for saving the university before the veto override vote failed.

International studies major Mitchell Jones was one of them. He doubts that UAA will be able to operate in the same capacity in the future.

“I don’t see how you can cut anything of that magnitude and expect it to function better or even the same way it was functioning before,” Jones said.

An uncertain future

Administrators have said programs for the fall are likely to remain the same. After that, there’s a lot of uncertainty about which programs will continue.

Jones says he’s received notices from professors that some classes he needs to graduate may be on the chopping block. Former student regent Joey Sweet is in the Masters in Public Administration program. He’s hopeful the small size of his department will help it survive the cuts.

“Master’s in Public Administration, there’s not much more to it. You have your textbooks, you show up in class,” Sweet said. “We’re not archaeology or something where you have to go on expensive field visits, or things like that. But that’s all just me imagining that.”

Alex Jorgensen is a member of UAA’s student government and is one class and one internship short of his degree. He says prior to the vetoes, he would’ve recommended UAA in a heartbeat, especially to lifelong Alaskans who value their education, like him.


“I couldn’t faithfully tell another another student that they should sacrifice that to go to an institution, just because it’s in-state,” Jorgensen said. “At the end of the day you have to focus on what’s good for you. And you can come back. But we know that eight out of ten students that leave the state for college, don’t come back.”

If the vetoes stand, the next step for the university system as a whole will occur on Monday. That’s when the UA Board of Regents will decide on financial exigency, which would allow them to quickly cut programs and let go of faculty, even those with tenure.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Conservative Party leader travels to Yukon, outlines vision for Northern Canada, CBC News

Finland: Finland’s new gov breezes through no-confidence vote over its agenda, Yle News

Sweden: Swedish Centre Party promises tax break for rural northerners, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska governor says permanent fund dividend formula must be approved by popular vote, Alaska Public Media

Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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