MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The University of Alaska is facing a more-than-40% drop in its funding this year. That came as a surprise last Friday just days before a new state operating budget went into effect. Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy announced the cuts as part of roughly $400 million worth of vetoes to the state budget.
So what might this mean for the University of Alaska? Here to answer that is university president James Johnsen. Welcome.
JAMES JOHNSEN: Good afternoon.
KELLY: I have to start by asking, did you have any idea this was coming, or did you find out along with everybody else in Alaska just a few days ago?
JOHNSEN: I found out about an hour ahead of the public announcement. The governor called and let me know. Now, the veto amount was the amount he proposed in his original budget in the legislature. So you know, I was certainly aware of that number for several months. But the legislature had walked back most of that.
KELLY: What was your reaction when you got this call?
JOHNSEN: Yeah, I was pretty stunned. We've already taken over 50 million dollars of cuts over the last several years, so there aren't any nickels and dimes laying on the floor anymore. To borrow a medical term, it has to be amputation at this point.
KELLY: So give me an example of what that amputation looks like, a specific example of things you're going to have to cut.
JOHNSEN: Well, if it's $135 million cut this year, I can envision an entire university being closed.
KELLY: Meaning having to shut an entire campus.
JOHNSEN: We have three universities in our system and 13 community colleges all across the state. And so 135 million would be one of our universities and all of our community campuses.
KELLY: What else in the immediate term are you considering doing or are you already doing to comply with this budget cut?
JOHNSEN: We have frozen nonessential travel. We've frozen nonessential hiring. And we've also given all of our staff - 2,500 of them across the state - a 60-day notice of a furlough - that is unpaid leave time - to be taken sometime during the fiscal year.
KELLY: You have asked state legislators to intervene. Have they, and are you optimistic it might make a difference?
JOHNSEN: It's going to be a very heavy lift in that overriding the veto requires three quarters of the legislature in combined session. So 45 of Alaska's 60 legislators need to override the veto.
KELLY: The governor's argument is that these cuts are, A, necessary for the budget and, B, that they would allow the University of Alaska to be - and I'll quote him - "smaller, leaner but still very, very positive and a productive university." If I'm hearing you right, you are not in agreement.
JOHNSEN: No. I mean, I can be smaller and leaner with one fewer arms or a leg that I've lopped off. No, I think it's going to be extremely difficult. We can't possibly serve the entire state, especially a state is geographically distributed as we are, by closing entire campuses.
KELLY: Do you see an impact on enrollment, on students wanting to come to the University of Alaska?
JOHNSEN: Absolutely. Our enrollment has actually been in decline since 2012, certainly over the last several years because we've taken budget cuts four out of the last five years. There's no question in my mind that some students are opting for other institutions because of uncertainty about our budget. And another big challenge here in Alaska - we have in general very low college-going rates. So another negative aspect of this is young people who decide not to go on at all.
KELLY: That is University of Alaska President James Johnsen. He was speaking with us there from Fairbanks, Alaska. James Johnsen, thank you for your time.
JOHNSEN: My pleasure.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this report, we mistakenly say that the Alaska university system is facing a more than 40% cut in its budget. In fact, that cut is only in the state's portion of funding for the system.]
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