UAF bias? Legislators, university officials spar over budget
By Tom Hewitt
Sun Star Reporter
At a Jan. 28 meeting of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, made no secret of his displeasure with university representatives.
“I’ve described it publicly as open warfare amongst the campuses,” Hawker said. After citing mixed messages he has received from advocates for different branches of the university, Hawker posed an even more pointed question to Regent Mary Hughes: “Do we have a university system, or do we have three warring regional colleges?”
Over the course of the next hour, Anchorage area legislators levied charges of regionalism and failure to focus on students at the university’s administration. Hughes and UA President Mark Hamilton countered that they struggle to maintain the university’s vision while dealing with competing priorities handed to them by – among others – the legislators themselves.
Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, claimed that the university favors UAF in its funding requests. He said that he thought the regents had been motivated by a nostalgic attachment to Fairbanks as the university’s flagship campus, neglecting population and enrollment growth in southcentral Alaska. “This hasn’t been any conspiracy,” Stoltze said. “It’s something that’s been going on despite the best of wishes.”
Hamilton sharply disagreed with Stoltze’s claim, saying that the Board of Regents is a statewide body, and that accusations of regional bias were insulting. He went on to say that the regional funding biases in the budget are often the result of legislators’ efforts to direct funding to the districts they represent. Furthermore, he said, the characterization of Fairbanks as a money hog is unfair, as 80 percent of new university facilities in the past several years have been constructed in the Anchorage area.
Earlier in the meeting, Hughes had defended the university’s funding choices. “It’s not as if we – the regents – make our priorities and everyone is silent,” she said. “There’s a lot of discussion, and much advocacy, to get where we get.” She continued that the regents had decided this year to focus on a single capital project – UAF’s Life Sciences Building, long unfunded by the legislature – largely due to concerns raised by legislators that the laundry list of projects the university submitted in the past lacked focus. “As a regent, I’m trying to help you and say, ‘This is our priority,’” Hughes said. “Next year we’re going to be down here with another priority, and that also is probably going to be controversial. And I don’t care what it is. It’ll be something that one campus or a group of people at one campus isn’t going to like. That’s just what it’s all about.”
Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, whose district includes the UAF campus, strongly disagreed with the assertion that the university system gives Fairbanks unfair preference. “That bothers me,” he said. “That means that a lot of people have a bias themselves, for their own district, or their own campus.”
To support his argument that UAF doesn’t get more funding or attention than it deserves, Guttenberg cited the difference in the funding approaches taken between facilities in Fairbanks and Anchorage. “[Anchorage-area legislators] are screaming about the rec center they want in Anchorage,” he said, “And they’re falling all over themselves to fund it. But they forget that when Fairbanks built a sports complex, the university didn’t get a penny for it that they didn’t have to pay back. It was all bonds that the university had to float. [The legislators] don’t get it. And they really don’t want to hear it.”
University Public Affairs Director Kate Ripley took the position that competition between campuses is healthy. “[Legislators] feel like they hear a lot of regionalism,” she said. “But really, people are passionate about their home campuses, as they should be. From our perspective, we’re used to this. This is natural.”
Ripley agreed with Hughes that the regents have the unpleasant job of being pulled in many different directions with regard to funding priorities. “It’s a balancing act,” she said. “You’re just never pleasing everybody.”
Unfortunately for the university, the three legislators who appeared most displeased – Reps. Hawker, Bill Stoltze and Anna Fairclough, R-Anchorage – are among those most influential to the process of funding the university budget. Hawker and Stolze are co-chairs of the House Finance Committee, while Fairclough heads the University of Alaska Finance subcommittee. All three have previously expressed concerns about the university and its priorities, most notably last year when Fairclough told President Hamilton that she had difficulty understanding how university students could argue for full funding of the university budget when they appeared unappreciative of the source of much of the funding – natural resource development.
On one point, university officials appeared to agree with the legislators – that problems exist in the university’s distance education program. A legislative audit of the program last year raised several issues relating to its administration, primarily its failure to adequately address student needs. “We agree. It’s not student centric, and it should be. That’s the goal,” Ripley said. She pushed back, however, against assertions that the problems are as serious as some legislators make them out to be, citing increasing enrollment in distance classes. “The service can’t be that horrible,” she said, “or I don’t think we’d see the numbers going up.”