USUAA should advocate for university budget reductions
By Ben Edwards
Fiscal prudence is a tough pill to swallow for universities. It is not as delightful as securing more state funding than the previous fiscal year. It is not as glamorous as cutting the ribbon on a new department building or skybridge. And it is certainly not as painful as telling faculty and students to operate within a strict, proportional budgeting plan for longer than a semester. But fiscal prudence is responsible, sustainable and absolutely imperative when it comes to educational institutions. USUAA should understand that as a dominant principle in every budget advocacy function that it executes.
Currently, a direct method in which USUAA influences university budgeting is through the Juneau Advocacy Trip. This is a delegation comprised of various student representatives, both inside and outside of USUAA. The delegation travels to Juneau, usually during the spring semester, and arranges a series of face-to-face encounters with state legislators. Since the Legislature reduced its university funding allocation for three years in a row, the dominant message in USUAA’s latest delegations has been to emphasize how budget cuts harm this institution. The implication is that a budget increase is always positive, a decrease is always negative and a duplicated budget from last year is begrudgingly acceptable.
It is understandable why UAA advocates against every budget reduction. In fact, every other state-funded institution goes to Juneau to plead the same. The result is a ruinous game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, where all institutions act in their self-interest (thwarting their own budget cut) while ignoring the most positive outcome (modest, across-the-board budget cuts).
USUAA has both the opportunity and the obligation to break this cycle. Section Two, Clause Two of the USUAA Constitution charges the organization to “promote the educational needs, general welfare, and rights of the students.” Students’ needs and welfare are best served when the university is flexible to changing fiscal situations. We might wish for Alaska state funding to be steady over the long term. We might wish that a fluctuation in oil price could be mitigated by legislative foresight and frugality. But that is not the Alaska we live in.
According to Pew Charitable Trust, the State of Alaska has the highest revenue volatility in the country as of August 2018. UAA must learn how to operate consistently in this inconvenient reality. As the authoritative voice of students, USUAA must step up and help the university behave like rubber rather than glass. When the next oil crash comes, the university must be malleable but not breakable.
UAA has already demonstrated its ability to scale itself in creative ways. Over a hundred retired or vacant positions were deleted since FY15. The Strategic Pathways reform project assisted in that process by removing duplicate programs. USUAA ought to encourage appropriate scaling and reforms, especially when it interacts with the Board of Regents during their public hearings. For example, if a university department experienced a cut during a state budget shortfall, then USUAA should resist efforts to reinstate prior funding until proven that it is required to meet that department’s expectations. In other words, the burden of proof is on the department that is asking for more money. USUAA is directly relevant to this process when a department asks for a student fee increase and indirectly relevant when the Board of Regents is considering the next fiscal year budget.
There may be instances where USUAA commits to shielding a particular university expense. Perhaps they have determined that it is uniquely invaluable, or student pressure to protect it is intense. In these instances, USUAA should adopt a philosophy of “productive opposition.” This is where USUAA declares its opposition to cutting the expense in question, but acknowledges the reasons why that expense arrived at the chopping block in the first place. USUAA can then advocate for creative ways to accommodate those budgetary needs. Can the cost savings be shifted elsewhere? Can the subject improve its efficiency or make do with a smaller allocation? At the university level, productive opposition helps the Board of Regents meet their financial obligations in ways that minimize hardship upon students and faculty. At the state level, productive opposition helps USUAA elicit cooperation from conservative legislators.
Rethinking how USUAA conducts budget advocacy will help the university weather storms in the future. The State of Alaska’s revenues fluctuate wildly over just a few years, and UAA must be able to ride those waves as smoothly as possible. This means having an adaptable institution with a flexible budget. It also means having a student government that advocates fiscal prudence in every function.
More budget cuts will cripple the university system
By Robert Hockema
Don’t get me wrong: fiscal responsibility should be an utmost priority of legislatures and universities alike. It’s hard to disagree with the idea that we ought to live within our means and prioritize meaningfully improving the quality of our education over frivolous spending. However, the way that we discuss budget cuts to the university is sort of strange to me. We assume there are only two sides to the discussion: cut the university to the bare bones or give them unlimited money with no questions asked. The discussion we should be having is not whether USUAA should advocate for more funding than we deserve but whether we can afford to ask for less than we currently have.
To have that debate, we should first consider the effect that budget cuts have had on the university system since the state fiscal crisis began in 2014. For starters, the university’s operating budget has been cut four years in a row. The Legislature allotted the university system $317 million for the 2018 fiscal year, an $8 million cut from the 2017 fiscal year. That leaves the university with an $11 million funding gap after fixed costs are taken into account. To take a broader view of budget cuts, the UA general fund allocation in 2013 was $376 million.
The question Ben Edwards poses in his piece is a fair one: so what? Giving the university more money isn’t necessarily good in and of itself. Shouldn’t the UA system learn to operate within the means they currently have?
It’s worth emphasizing that these cuts are more than numbers. University cuts have drastically affected students in three direct ways:
First, the deficiencies in funding have forced the university to raise tuition. Rates have been climbing for over a decade now, but the recent and consistent hikes can be attributed to the nearly $60 million cut to the UA general fund allocation over the past four years. Additional cuts would push tuition rates even higher than they already are.
Second, the quality of education has been directly affected. Less money causes cuts to specific departments, reducing the quality of education programs provide and reducing the resources they have to engage more students. It also encourages professors to jump ship before their departments become obsolete.
Additionally, services that directly help students succeed in their classes are being affected. For instance, layoffs slow down response times to student services we all rely on. Cuts to hours and the collection database at the Consortium Library make studying and learning more inaccessible. Campus services, like Residence Life, have fewer funds for campus engagement, which make students less likely to stay at their university in the long-term.
Finally, more cuts deter future students from enrolling in the first place. To the family of a high school senior, the perception that the school you’ve got your sights set on is losing its most attractive features will cause them to think twice about enrolling. At the very least, students will finish up their GERs in Alaska before transferring to an institution where their program is not in jeopardy.
The feedback loop this causes could destroy the university system: less enrollment creates more deficits in the budget, which hikes tuition and reduces the quality of education, which deters enrollment. The university cannot survive that for long.
Even setting the academic considerations aside, cuts still harm UA’s enrollment. Higher tuition, fewer and more expensive services and less availability for activities is a hard sell for a university system that wants to be on par with larger state universities in the Lower 48. Decreased enrollment is hardly a hypothetical; UAF and UAS are already seeing their numbers decline as a result of cuts. It won’t be long before UAA begins to notice a similar drop.
All of that said, the fiscal realities of the Alaskan economy aren’t going to go away. Oil is steadily but slowly creeping up, no new revenue streams have been created by the Alaska State Legislature and the leading candidate for the 2018 governor’s race advocates even deeper cuts to the university as a part of their fiscal plan. Everyone wants a cut of the pie, but not everyone can get their way.
This doesn’t mean USUAA should stop fighting for a budget that allows the university to maintain quality services and education. We’re approaching the point past where we can keep cutting excess in the operating budget. Now, we’re digging into the bone.
Higher education should be a top priority for the Legislature. More than anything else, it spurs innovation, creates critical thinkers and give students the skills to solve complex problems. Advocates lobbying in Juneau next spring should communicate that to legislators loud and clear.