UA chancellors unveil proposals for cutting degree programs

A sign on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage. (Photo by Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

At the University of Alaska Anchorage, Chancellor Cathy Sandeen is recommending the university end 17 degree and certificate programs to cut spending, including a bachelor’s in theater and master’s in early childhood special education.

Sandeen released her proposal on Monday, March 23, as did the chancellors at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Southeast.

It’s the latest step in a monthslong process across the University of Alaska system to close a budget gap driven by years of cuts to state funding and declining enrollment. UA’s governing board will ultimately decide in June what stays and what goes.

UA President Jim Johnsen said he knows it’s a painful process, made even more difficult by the coronavirus and its wide-spread impacts. But, he said, it’s necessary. The funding cuts aren’t going away. In fact, the university system’s budget situation may only get worse, he said.

“So lots of stress, lots of uncertainty. But what is certain is our state funding is going down,” Johnsen said. “And the COVID impact on us is serious. It is impacting us in terms of additional costs, which have to be borne in some way.”

Sandeen’s recommendations largely align with the prior proposals from Anchorage university leaders. At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, chemistry and sociology programs are on the chopping block, among others. And, in Southeast, the chancellor’s recommended cuts include a bachelor’s in geography and environmental resources.

There are other degree programs the chancellors are recommending be reduced, but not cut completely, while others, they say, should be enhanced. The chancellors are also looking for ways to save money within administrative services, and will provide recommendations for cuts to regents.

In the meantime, university leaders are also responding to the rapidly-developing coronavirus situation. They have largely shut down student life on campus. Most classes have been moved online. Most students have left their dorms.

Maria Williams is chair of the UA Faculty Alliance and a professor at UAA. She said it’s challenging to go through the degree program cuts while students and faculty are also adapting to the new coronavirus reality.

“I think clearly our public health crisis is taking all the oxygen out of the room,” she said.

She said faculty have concerns that they haven’t seen a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed degree eliminations.

“The other concern that faculty have is that if we’re really cutting academic programs, we’re cutting students, meaning we’re cutting student tuition dollars,” she said.

Also, Williams said, faculty think more cuts should come from UA statewide administration. But statewide officials counter the administration has already absorbed a large portion of the cuts over the years.

A UA spokeswoman said there wasn’t yet a total of how many jobs would be eliminated if the chancellors’ recommendations are approved.

Also, the coronavirus and its impacts may force the UA system to cut spending even further next year, according to Johnsen.

“We are working very hard to get our hands around what those extra costs are, and what impacts COVID may have on our revenues going forward,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen spoke Monday from his home office in Fairbanks where he is self-quarantining for two weeks after visiting his mother in California over spring break. In mid-March, UA announced that university faculty, staff and students returning from travel outside of Alaska have to stay home and watch for symptoms for 14 days.

Johnsen said UA’s spending has gone up as it responds to the coronavirus. Last week, UAA said it was helping buy students’ plane tickets to go home, if they couldn’t afford them, and refunding a portion of their dining and dorm fees.

The pandemic could also gouge the revenue side of UA’s budget, including reducing money for research, Johnsen said. UA is already bracing for a $25 million cut to state funding for the next fiscal year that begins July 1, and a $20 million cut in the following year.

Regents are taking public testimony in April and May, before making their decisions in June.