Last March, the University of Alaska Anchorage gymnastics team concluded its historic 2019 season with a program record total of 194.200 at the MPSF championship.
That landmark score could be its last.
On June 28, Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy announced a massive reduction of state support for the University of Alaska system, vetoing the legislature-approved budget. The $130 million Dunleavy is responsible for cutting follows a previous budget reduction of $5 million by the state legislature, and means the university’s state funding will fall by 40 percent for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2019.
In the immediate aftermath of the shocking announcement, Alaska students and officials lobbied the legislature to override Dunleavy’s veto and reinstate a previous, more moderate spending bill. On July 10, those efforts failed.
While advocacy is still ongoing and there is a possibility of salvation in the form of an alternative spending bill, the university is staring down the possibility of massive cuts that could include entire university departments or even one of its two primary campuses.
Alaska President Jim Johnsen confirmed that if the changes proceed as written, no academic or athletic program in the university system would be safe. Since the budget cuts apply to the coming academic year, changes could be imminent.
Alaska gymnastics head coach Tanya Ho and her team are waiting anxiously for news about the future of their team.
“I’m very worried as the head coach because I have no idea how this will affect us,” Ho said. “If it’s just budget cuts, that’s fine, we can work with that. But in terms of cutting the program, that’s something we need to know sooner rather than later, and I have no idea how much of a possibility that is.”
The loss of the program at Anchorage would be devastating for the college gymnastics community, especially considering it would come only months after UIC’s emotional farewell season and the passionate yet ultimately unsuccessful attempts of fans to save the Flames.
A similar rescue attempt would be impossible for the Seawolves because, if the program is in fact cut, there likely will not be an athletics department to lobby.
“The thing is, I don’t think this is a situation where they’re just looking at specific sports. I think it would involve all of athletics,” Ho said.
Alaska already lags significantly behind the rest of the country in terms of access to higher education. As of 2014, it was one of only four U.S. states in which less than half of high school graduates immediately enrolled in college.
Moreover, per a report by the Alaska Commission of Postsecondary Education, only 35 percent of Alaskan students who attended university in a different state returned to Alaska after graduation. Ho identified athletics as one of the state’s few working tools to bring talented young people into Alaska rather than losing them to the rest of the country.
“We have athletes coming in from all over the country—and even internationally—to come to Alaska, to get their degrees here and to do gymnastics,” Ho said. “If it wasn’t for gymnastics, they wouldn’t come here. They can get their degrees elsewhere. [Dunleavy] is pushing people out of the state.”
Ho and those team members currently training in Anchorage attended Monday’s Board of Regents meeting in which the university declared financial exigency, authorizing it to make radical and rapid changes to keep the university afloat over the coming months. According to Ho, the team felt it was important for the regents to “see who they’re affecting and who they’re supposed to represent.”
The Board of Regents will meet again July 30 to vote on a broad plan for how to diffuse the cuts between the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses, which are expected to bear the brunt of the loss since the Southeast campus in Juneau falls under a different category in the state budget. It’s likely that the regents will elect either to spread cuts evenly across the two campuses or to collapse them into one accreditation to minimize redundancy within the system. However, there is also a possibility that one campus will be cut altogether. Details about the future of specific programs, including gymnastics, will likely follow this decision.
What You Should Know
- In late June, Alaskan Governor Mike Dunleavy vetoed a total of $440 million in state funding for education, health care and other social programs
- The university is losing $130 million, which constitutes 41 percent of its 2019-2020 budget
- The UA system is comprised of three separately accredited universities and 13 satellite campuses
- The university system (particularly the Fairbanks campus) is internationally renowned for its Arctic and climate change research
- Because Alaskan legislators failed to overturn the governor’s veto, these funds may now be diverted towards the Permanent Fund Dividend
- This gives Alaskan residents annual payments from the state’s oil revenue that has been depleted in recent years by declining oil costs
- Dunleavy ran in 2018 on a platform of increasing this dividend
- On July 22, the university’s Board of Regents voted 10 to 1 in favor of financial exigency
- This step allows the university to downsize rapidly as needed by eliminating tenured faculty members, as well as academic, arts and athletic programs
- An estimated 1,300 faculty and staff members will be laid off
- The Alaska Board of Regents will vote July 30 on how to proceed
- If the university does nothing, it will run out of state funds by February 2020, midway through its fiscal year
Article by Claire Billman and Rebecca Scally
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