The Board of Regents of the University of Alaska met recently and adopted a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. This budget eliminates about 40 long-standing academic programs at Alaska’s three universities, UA Anchorage, UA Fairbanks, and UA Southeast. These dramatic cuts were the direct result of the Governor’s budget vetoes that the Legislature did not override.
The word used most frequently at the Regents meeting and during the discussions leading up to it was “transformation”. In my world, transformation is a good word. When the Alaska recession crashed into Craig Taylor Equipment in the fall of 2015, my business partner and I had to reinvent our company. After three exhausting and painful years, our company emerged as a much stronger entity. One huge benefit of our commitment to transformation was our creation of Flyntlok, a software company now serving customers throughout the West.
Like our company, our university can emerge from its transformation as something more efficient, more focused, different, and better. However, this will not occur unless citizens rally to the aid of our university system. We should rally because the university is one of the most critical elements of our Alaska public infrastructure.
What can we do to assure a positive transformation of our university?
1. As the citizen owners of the universities, we all need to insist that they innovate rapidly in order to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible.
2. As Alaskans who care about future generations, we need to demand that the university budget cuts end. General fund cuts began six years ago and began accelerating rapidly last year. The state government truly faces a tough fiscal environment, but why should we put the university on the chopping block first? In FY ’21, we will spend 20 percent more state money on jails than on the university system. That is incredibly short sighted and defies common sense. If we diminish the quality of our universities, the brain drain out of Alaska will turn into a stampede. We need to set budgets with a courageous focus on building our future economy, not with a cowardly short-term focus on politics.
3. As employers, community leaders and workers, we should look for new and creative ways to use university resources and to partner with the universities. After being out of school for decades, I took two courses at UAA each semester over the last academic year and got huge value for the time and money invested. The quality of instruction was first class, in many ways providing a better experience than I had as a student in college and graduate school at Harvard. As an adjunct instructor for many years, I saw the great potential for the university to build stronger communities. For that potential to be realized, we need to look to university resources to build our businesses and communities.
Our university system is a foundational element in our Alaskan culture and economy. It fosters lifelong relationships, builds a strong permanent workforce, and enhances the economy. We all need to stand up and do our part to transform a strong university system into an even stronger one. Our future depends on it.
David Hoffman is the founder and former CEO of Alaska Growth Capital and CEO of other Alaska businesses. He and his business partner Sean McLaughlin own Craig Taylor Equipment, a 65-year-old Alaskan company that operates four branches statewide.