Saturday, February 1, 2014

The University of Alaska and its spending habits ...

According to contemporary news reports, University of Alaska President Pat Gamble had the following to say about the University's current fiscal situation at last December's Board of Regents meeting:
... the business model of the university is now not sustainable.  We are trying to hold tuition down.  The general fund is not going to supply the growth.  We're not getting anything out of interest rates.  The discretionary funds that come from grants are limited and probably going to stay at least flat.
Gamble predicted going forward, "[t]hings like growth, things like planning for new buildings, things like opening up new programs, all those kinds of things could very likely just be off the table."

Earlier in the year, the Chancellor of the University's Anchorage branch announced a plan to analyze all of the branch's various programs and rank them for funding prioritization, with those at the bottom "possibly facing elimination."  According to the University's description of the program, the
[r]anking will be done by placing each program or function in one of five quintiles: Priority for higher investment; Consider for higher investment; Sustained resources; Transform; Subject to further review or consider for phase out. Each quintile for academic programs will contain an equal number of programs ....
That means up to a fifth of UAA's programs and administrative functions will be up for reduction or elimination by the end of the process.

So it was somewhat shocking yesterday afternoon when I was looking through the catalogue for an upcoming art auction in Juneau that I saw the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) listed (at p. 12) as one of the primary financial backers of the event.  The auction is being put on by the Sealaska Heritage Institute "in an effort to promote Native art, raise funds for construction of the Walter Soboleff Center and to establish Juneau as the capital of Northwest Coast art."

At its level of giving ("Copper Level"), in exchange for its support UAS is receiving:
•Front placement, table of 10, •Handmade copper tináa for each table guest, made by Tlingit artist Héendei, •2 complimentary bottles of wine for the table, •Verbal recognition and name/logo recognized in slideshow display during event , •Recognition in Tináa Art Auction catalog/program, SHI’s website, promotional materials, annual report, and annual video, •Quarter-page ad in Celebration 2014 program, 5,000 copies distributed, •Invitation to Sneak Preview Reception with the artists on January 31, •Alaska Airlines and hotel discounts.
Now, don't misunderstand my point.  At a personal level I deeply support the mission of the auction and, in fact, was looking through the catalogue to see if there were any pieces on which I wanted to bid.  Having recently donated a portion of my collection to a local university where I used to live in Oklahoma, I always am looking for opportunities to build it back up (no doubt, so that I can give it away again).

But as much as I support the mission personally, I am appalled in a period during which the University itself recognizes that it has an unsustainable business model and is headed toward significant retrenchment that it is spending money essentially subsidizing the foundational activities of a profitable regional corporation.  Not only are such expenditures off mission, they are, ultimately, a slap in the face to the employees and students who are being asked to bear the brunt of the retrenchments made necessary by the state and university's current fiscal conditions.

This morning I attempted to identify how much in total the University system -- and indeed the state overall -- are spending on similar efforts, buying tables or otherwise supporting what essentially are fundraising efforts by private and non-governmental institutions.  But the information provided online by the Office of Management and Budget and the Legislative Finance Division doesn't go into that level of detail and, interestingly enough, the state's "checkbook," an effort initiated during the Palin Administration to provide transparency and accountability for state expenditures, doesn't include payments made by the University system.

As the House and Finance Committees continue to consider the University's budget during the current session, however, I and likely others will urge them to keep this experience in mind, ask the University to identify from its own books how much has been spent on such programs in the past and identify the efforts it intends to make to eliminate these non-mission related expenditures in the future.

If we are to leave a legacy for the generations to come, it is time for Alaska government to spend smarter, not more.  Eliminating these types of expenditures at all levels of state government is one of the ways it can and should do so.