UA President: “Focus on Stability to Regain Confidence”

by | Oct 26, 2021 | Education, News

UAF campus
UAF campus.

Todd Paris | UAF

Stability is the focus for University of Alaska (UA) Interim President Pat Pitney. In a speech to the Anchorage Downtown Rotary Club, Pitney described “the turmoil of the last several years” for the UA system. Not only has enrollment declined during the pandemic, reducing tuition revenue, but in the years before COVID-19, state funding dropped by about one-third, or about $100 million. Pitney, a former state budget director, says that puts UA finances about where they were in 1998.

“If we can get stable financial footing from the state,” Pitney says, “we can repair the work with the students. We can get them back.”

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To regain confidence and trust, Pitney is promoting the university as an economic asset. For instance, Pitney says UA research returns dividends in terms of business sales and payroll.

Ahead of her speech, UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) released a study, originally published in July, that estimates the total economic impact of UA’s research activities at $242 million in 2020. According to ISER researcher Mouhcine Guettabi, part of that comes from $160 million in grants from outside of Alaska. Those funds from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have more than offset a decline in research funding from the state government.

Guettabi also calculated a multiplier effect from research funding that circulates in the economy. The study found that every $1 received by a researcher is amplified to $6.60 in the case of UAF (the system’s main research institution) and $7.33 from UAA. That’s far above the national average multiplier effect, which has been trending downward for twenty years.

Guettabi concludes, “The infusion of research dollars into Alaska leads to economic expansion, and, in the absence of these dollars, the economy would be smaller.”

In her speech, Pitney echoed the view of UA research as an industry on par with petroleum, mining, or fisheries. One example she gave is how research in extracting rare earth minerals could be the next bonanza for the state. Closer on the horizon, UA researchers are pioneering robotic aircraft.

“Soon, and we’re talking within three years, we can see commercial drone activity,” Pitney says. “Whether it be shipping medicines to the North Slope or to remote villages or setting up a mining camp, we can do that with unmanned aerial vehicles. The research is happening, and that value to our state is so important.”

Beyond research, Pitney makes the case that every degree awarded by UA increases the overall value of human capital. Educated workers earn higher wages and spend those wages elsewhere in the economy. “Going from a high school diploma, the average wage: $35,000,” she explains. “Add $10,000 a year, on average, for a two-year degree. Add $20,000 a year for a four-year degree. Add $40,000 a year in income with a master’s degree.”

Although the UA system eliminated fifty degree offerings as state funding was cut, Pitney says she is committed to keeping programs necessary to put graduates in the workforce. “What we need now is to connect more closely with employers to link the students to the programs and to the employers,” she says.

In the face of shrinking enrollment, Pitney is actively recruiting potential students into degree programs. One new initiative is the “” website. Pitney says it will show anyone how they can embark on a career as a teacher. She explains: “Already a mid-career person? We’ve got a one-year program, they get a master’s and teach. Kid right out of high school, they want to be a science teacher? We have a path for that. They want to be an elementary education teacher? We’ve got a path for that.”

UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell made a similar pitch at the Rotary luncheon, aimed at prospective healthcare professionals. And not just nurses: “I went to a graduation ceremony for medical assistants and stenographers. We train surgery techs. We train phlebotomists. If you want to be in the healthcare arena… in a semester, in two semesters, in three semesters—we have a pathway for you to do that.”

To the extent that Alaska has weathered the COVID-19 crisis, Parnell and Pitney both touted the university’s contribution to the response efforts. “We trained contact tracers for the State of Alaska,” says Parnell. “We helped to ensure production of PPE [personal protective equipment] … Early on, we converted the Alaska Airlines Center to emergency response space, and our experts at UAA advised state and local governments on best practices in public health and epidemiology.” Pitney adds that most of the experts obtained their Master of Public Health degrees at UAA.

Beyond the pandemic, Pitney and Parnell see “headwinds” that could slow the university’s recovery. Both are very concerned that the Higher Education Investment Fund, created during Parnell’s term as governor, could be depleted by next year if its earnings are spent on other state expenses.

Pitney pledged to maintain the university in order to keep educated Alaskans working in the state, and she invited Rotary Club members to help her keep her promise. “If we’re not present in your world, bring us out there. We want to serve.”

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