University of Alaska Fiscal Crisis

It is well known that states have systematically de-invested in their public universities over the past couple of decades. The current governor of the state of Alaska, Mike Dunleavy,  has taken this trend to a new extreme however by putting in place a 41% cut to the University of Alaska which will cause the Research 1 university to run out of money four months before the end of its current fiscal year.

The University of Alaska is unique because it houses a critical mass of this country’s arctic research. When I was at NSF, the Director and I site visited many of these facilities and the top notch scientists who conduct their research at them. It was clear that this arctic research infrastructure represents an important national resource for this country (and the world) as it adapts to climate disruption–which is accelerated in the arctic.

Jim Johnsen, the President of the UofA system has just put forward some possible responses to the cuts and here is a summary of those ideas from Inside Higher Education. His actual slide deck is here. From my own experience as an academic leader, I am more inclined towards either the first or the last of the three scenarios. Better to make a change that is strategic (and initially very painful) than to proportionately cut everything.

But the larger question is why politics has gotten to the point of self-harm for the sake of symbolism and gut satisfaction. A world class public research university is an economic innovation engine to a state–both California and Texas come to mind as exemplars of this magnet effect. There are many others. I don’t have the answer to this, but it’s not just happening inside the US: UK science will be significantly harmed by a no-deal Brexit of the type Boris Johnson (the brand new PM) has potentially committed to if the EU does not agree to his renegotiation demands. The new President of Mexico is proposing massive cuts to science in his country.

Oddly, one nation continues to invest in science as if there is no tomorrow: China.

About that photo…

The one at the top of this page. I took that photo on the edge of the Arctic Ocean in Barrow Alaska. In the foreground is a whale skull. It’s a stark scene and in a sense a perfect visual metaphor for the uncertain times we live in. You’ll notice a complete absence of sea ice. With a good dry suit, I could have gone surfing. This was not always the case. While is still live, you can see quantitatively how drastically the environment has changed in Barrow here.

Much of the tundra in Alaska is permafrost. That includes communities such as Barrow. And that permafrost is now rapidly thawing. So Barrow’s future is quite uncertain. Look at my photo one more time. Real enough, right?