Alaska’s Engineering Colleges Prepare to Slash Programs, Lay Off Faculty

Dramatic cuts to the budget of the state’s only public university put its engineering programs in jeopardy

A thousand students enrolled in the University of Alaska’s engineering colleges in Fairbanks and Anchorage—the only engineering programs in the state—are probably wondering: What next? Administrators have few answers to offer as they confront Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy’s dramatic budget cuts to the state’s only public institution of higher education. 

The future of Alaska’s engineering colleges is now in jeopardy along with the rest of the University of Alaska (UA) system. Dozens of engineering faculty, researchers, and staff could see their positions eliminated, and even tenured faculty members could lose their jobs. Students may not be able to finish their degrees in the programs or locations in which they started.

And thanks to the failure of another state budget measure called the reverse sweep, many engineering students have already lost merit-based scholarships promised to them through the Alaska Performance Scholarship program. Engineering students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) have lost more than US $ 1 million in scholarships that were awarded but not funded.

“The situation is looking rather grim,” says Kenrick Mock, interim dean for UAA’s College of Engineering. The college offers degree programs in computer science, electrical engineering, computer systems engineering, and project management among others.

Mock, who is in the Computer Science and Engineering Department, says budget cuts could mean losing one or two faculty members from a departmental staff of six, which currently supports 250 computer science majors and 50 computer systems engineering majors.

College- and department-level impacts won’t be clear until the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents decides later this month how best to restructure the system in light of the cuts. In the meantime, students, faculty, and staff are left to try to make sense of recent events.

On 28 June, Gov. Dunleavy vetoed US $ 130 million in state funding for the University of Alaska system for the fiscal year that began on 1 July—a step he said was necessary to contend with the state’s $ 1.6 billion budget deficit, inflicted in large part by sluggish oil prices. Those cuts came on top of a $ 5 million reduction proposed by Alaska’s legislature.

Overall, state funding for the University of Alaska has been reduced by $ 136 million [PDF], or 41 percent, for the fiscal year that began 1 July. That translates to a 17 percent reduction to the University of Alaska’s total operating budget. Citing reputational damage caused by these cuts, the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents expects tuition, grant funding, and charitable donations to also drop, adding to a total loss of more than $ 200 million [PDF] in funding for the current fiscal year.

The University of Alaska operates three separately-accredited campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau along with more than a dozen technical schools and other branches across the state.

Last week, some legislators scrambled to find 45 votes to override the governor’s veto. But Dunleavy made that task more difficult by calling for a special session in the city of Wasilla, far from the state’s capitol of Juneau, to discuss Alaska residents’ annual permanent fund dividend payments. That move effectively split the legislature, with those remaining in Juneau voting to override the veto (37-1), but failing to capture the required number of votes.

The University of Alaska is now widely expected to declare financial exigency [PDF], an emergency status that would allow administrators to take extreme measures to reduce costs by closing campuses, slashing salaries and programs, or laying off tenured faculty.

However, closing the university’s flagship Fairbanks campus would still not be enough to cover the shortfall. In response to budget cuts in previous years, the university has already suspended or discontinued more than 50 degree programs and certificates, including its MS in Engineering Management program.

On Monday, the UA Board of Regents said it would wait until 30 July to decide whether to declare financial exigency. In the meantime, some legislators in the House Finance Committee still hope to draft and pass on a new budget that would restore part or all of the university’s funding.

“I’m just trying to catch up and figure out what the heck is going on,” said William Schnabel, dean of the College of Engineering and Mines at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), when reached for comment on Tuesday.

A six-hour drive north from Anchorage, the UAF College of Engineering and Mines has 650 students, including 65 pursuing master and doctoral degrees. Forty-five tenured or tenure-track faculty work there, along with 10 research faculty and 32 staff.

The college also includes the Institute for Northern Engineering, which hosts specialized research groups including the Alaska Center for Energy and Power and a consortium devoted to studying sustainable transportation in cold climates.

Schnabel is doing his best to stay positive while  grappling with the potential impact of the cuts. “We are absolutely going to be smaller in this college,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to do as many things. But the things we’re going to do are going to be excellent.”

For him, that will mean choosing which programs to invest in, and which to eliminate. “I don’t really plan that we’re going to take these budget cuts and spread them out evenly,” he says. “I think we’re going to drop programs, because I don’t want to keep all my programs and have everybody do it half-assed.”

“That will doom us,” he adds. “We have to be great at something in order to get students to Fairbanks.”

UAF engineering researchers are largely supported by grants and are therefore less likely to be cut than faculty who spend most of their time with students in classrooms. “The big danger with the research faculty is that they’ll just get fed up and leave,” Schnabel says.

Chris Hartman, who heads the computer science department at UAF, has fielded many questions from students about what the budget cuts means for their studies. “What I’m telling them is—I have no idea, but we will make sure that you have some path to graduation somehow,” he says.

Enrollment in many of UAF’s engineering programs has fallen in recent years (except computer science), which Schnabel says is a symptom of a statewide recession. Neither Schnabel nor Mock expect the engineering colleges to shut down completely, and other schools and programs could face worse fates, since there is strong industry support for engineering in Alaska.

Still, Schnabel worries that downsizing staff could cause the UAF college to lose ABET accreditation for those programs that remain, which he says would be “devastating” to the school and its students. “If you want to get an engineering license, you have to graduate form an ABET-accredited program,” he says. “And if you’re not accredited, you may as well not have a program.”

Chris Miller, president of Fairbanks-based engineering firm Design Alaska and an advisory board member for UAF’s College of Engineering and Mines, says his firm recruits heavily from UA engineering programs.

Of 44 technical staff members at Design Alaska, Miller estimates 65 percent are UA alums. Six UAF students are working at Design Alaska right now, and Miller says the firm hires UA grads for almost all of its entry-level positions.

“UA engineers understand working in Alaska, and being very cross-disciplined, self-reliant, and hands on,” Miller says. “We find Alaska-trained engineers ‘get it’ right away and perform well here.” He adds: “I have had countless people apply for jobs, and then look up Fairbanks, Alaska and say ‘no thanks’ to us.”

Computer science students who graduate from the Anchorage campus often become software developers, Mock says, and he estimates about 60 percent remain in the state. “In particular, the entrepreneurship community has been growing in Alaska and has already identified a shortage of programming talent as a gap, so the loss of our programs would have a definite impact on startups and the economy,” he says.

When students do leave the state to study engineering, they often never return, Schnabel adds. “Divesting in the engineering programs will send more good students away. So that’s a problem for the state,” he says.

Schnabel’s own son, Zeke, plans to start his freshman year of college at UAF’s College of Engineering and Mines this fall. He wants to study civil engineering. But given the university’s budget challenges, Schnabel says Zeke now thinks he may transfer and continue his studies out of state after his first year.

The first day of classes in Fairbanks is 26 August.

IEEE Spectrum Tech Talk

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