The three main arguments for Gov. Dunleavy’s UA veto — and their responses

Last week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced his final vetoes to the budget passed by the Legislature. There are dozens of cuts to lament, most of which affect poor and marginalized communities the most. What I’d like to focus on is the $130 million veto of University of Alaska funding. 

Since the veto, a handful of protests have been organized across the state. Save Our State’s rally at the Legislature Information Office in Anchorage brought together stories from past and present UA students, all of which made a passionate case for the university system as a source of enrichment and innovation. Others have poured their heart out over social media to tell their stories of what the cut would mean to them and their families. 

As I’ve written before, I concur deeply with these testimonies. I believe that the backbone of a strong and healthy civic society and economy is a powerful university system. However, instead of making a forward case for university funding as I have before, I’d like to address three of the most mainstream — and misguided — arguments defending the crippling cuts to the UA system. 

The first argument is the most difficult because it’s partially true, but at the same time misleading: “UAA and UAF waste tons of money on useless stuff like sky bridges. Budget cuts will force them to reprioritize their spending!”

  • UAA and UAF do waste a lot of money. It’s hard to justify many of the expenditures. However, most complain about spending without knowing where the source actually comes from. Housing renovations, appliances, modifications to campus, concerts and many other initiatives often come from department revenue or student fees. At UAA, for instance, the most recent spending complaint is over the $100 million Alaska Airlines Center building… which was mostly paid for by Alaska Airlines, not UAA itself. Likewise, renovations to the Mac Apartments, Residence Halls and Commons cafeteria came primarily from the Housing Department budget, not the general fund. This isn’t to suggest money is never spent unwisely, but it’s important to put into perspective constant exaggerations of university expenditures. Not everything done at the university is paid for by public tax dollars. 
  • There’s a difference between methodical, coordinated cuts to help wean a university system off of state funding versus a death blow to the entire institution itself. For context, the budget for UAA alone is $120 million — compared to a $130 million cut. Assuming UA consolidates programs, cuts major departments and extracurricular funding and lays off thousands of employees, it still won’t be enough. Even if we buy the argument that UAA and UAF are grossly irresponsible with their finances, dismantling funding entirely only punishes students and faculty. Reformed spending comes from internal discussions and community input, not a forced crisis imposed by the governor. 

The next argument appeals to many but falls short of addressing the concerns of a cut of such magnitude: “Administrators and faculty get paid WAY too much. How much does Jim Johnsen make, anyways? If we stop overpaying the fat cats in admin, the cut will be much more manageable.”

  • Though high salaries look unfair to the rest of us, well-run universities require top talent. If UAA/UAF is to compete with lower-48 schools, administrative wages must be competitive. The alternative is sub-par administrators dragging the system and making it less attractive and thus less operable.
  • Fun fact: most of the top executive salaries at UAA are actually a bit below the national average for public college leaders.
  • The highest paid salary is UA President Jim Johnsen’s, which is around $340,000. Cutting his and a few others’ won’t even come close to making up the cut UAA faces. 

The third and final argument centers around an appeal to fairness and fiscal conservatism: “Everyone will take a hit in order to fill the budget deficit. The university system isn’t special. These cuts are necessary for the survival of the state.”

There’s just one problem: cutting the university budget will make the fiscal crisis worse. How so?

  • Research shows that universities contribute huge dollars in economic productivity, mostly in the form of convincing graduates to plant roots in the place where they went to college. As it turns out, training the next generation to lead, innovate and contribute to their communities requires institutions that foster opportunity. The Anchorage Economic Development Corporation estimates the University of Alaska system provided $714 million directly and $402 million indirectly to the statewide economy, according to 2012 numbers.
  • Local businesses rely on local talent. Where do people acquire that talent? The institutions that teach them the skills to be employable in the first place. On top of the thousands of layoffs that will happen at UAA alone, fewer people will be able to afford UAA/UAF and thus fewer people will be entering the job market. We’re looking at a potential labor shortage combined with a spike in unemployment, which could build the precipice for a recession.
  • Speaking of labor shortages, major positions in nursing are badly in need of being filled. Health care inefficiencies cost the state exorbitant amounts of money in the long term.
  • Most importantly, the university keeps A LOT of people in the state. Even if you didn’t go to school for a degree here or aren’t directly benefiting from instruction, programs and initiatives developed by UAA and UAF are used to partner with nonprofits, governmental agencies and educational organizations all around the state. Once those go away, so do the programs, and eventually, so do the people. 
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We all knew UA would take a hit. We definitely know there’s improvements to be made regarding financial efficiency and organizational structure. But you can’t have both a state that is prosperous and a meager university system. They are mutually exclusive. 

For those who think we can just halve every executive salary and scrap together a couple programs to cut, you have underestimated the magnitude that these cuts will truly have. Campuses, departments, programs and essential services crucial to basic functionality will shut down. People will leave. And when they do, they will take their potential with them. 

Going forward, the first step to overriding the veto is defeating its rhetorical thrust. The best way to do that is to bring down the force that is driving its power: misleading rhetoric designed to turn the state’s citizens against the university system. To fight back, engage with these arguments when you see them on social media or at the dinner table. Speak from your positive experiences at UA. Exercise the critical thinking and research skills you’ve learned. Crush the misinformation being used to wither away at the single most important state-funded institution Alaska has..