The University of Alaska System’s board of regents unanimously voted this week to no longer consider merging its Southeast and Fairbanks campuses.
The idea was pitched as a way for the system to absorb deep cuts mandated by the state and aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, the system will focus on collaborating and sharing programs and on further downsizing, according to a press release.
The coronavirus pandemic came on the heels of an already fraught year for the University of Alaska. Last August, the system struck a deal with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy to spread a $70 million budget cut over three years after he originally proposed a single-year reduction almost twice that size.
Slashing the budget by that much already meant the U of Alaska would have to make painful changes, but the coronavirus has exacerbated its financial woes. The system expects a budget shortfall of up to $40 million by the 2022 fiscal year, the Anchorage Daily News reported in May.
The system’s board of regents has approved a spending plan for the 2020-21 fiscal year that includes staff layoffs, suspends pay increases and eliminates dozens of academic programs. The idea met immediate opposition from faculty members and students.
Former System President Jim Johnsen, who resigned in July under pressure from the faculty union, also backed the idea of merging the Southeast campus into one or both of the system’s other two universities, which are all separately accredited, to cut costs, according to a local media report.
Southeast Chancellor Rick Caulfield wrote to Johnsen in May calling the proposal “short-sighted” and contended it would do little to address the system’s financial struggles.
The idea met broader criticism. Local government leaders where the Southeast campus is located voted to publicly oppose the proposed merger, contending that it would make it harder to attract new students.
Although the idea was squashed this week, board members added language in their resolution that allows it to consider other “structural options,” giving the system a pass to consider a merger down the line, KTOO Public Media reported.
This isn’t the only time the U of Alaska has explored consolidation. Last year, the system considered merging its three universities into one institution with single accreditation. That plan fell apart in October, when the system’s board members voted to stop looking into the model until the Fairbanks campus had its accreditation reaffirmed in 2021.
Mergers of higher education institutions can be tricky, especially among institutions that are geographically distant. The Fairbanks and Southeast main campuses are several hundred miles apart.
They also may not yield immediate savings, at least not at the level U of Alaska needs. When Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College merged in 2015, it saved only $6.6 million — less than 1% of the new university’s operating budget in the 2018 fiscal year, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
But other institutions are trying similar tactics. The struggling Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is exploring merging three pairs of colleges to cut costs and respond to flagging enrollment. Like the U of Alaska’s merger plans, it risks setting off criticism from key stakeholders, such as lawmakers and union groups.