Alaska has been thrown into chaos as newly elected Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy used a line-item veto to slash funding for the public university system by 41 percent — a devastating blow that has the already cash-strapped University of Alaska scrambling to furlough professors and cancel classes.
It’s a nightmare situation for the state — and, wrote Adam Harris for The Atlantic, a “worst-case scenario” of what happens when higher education becomes a partisan issue.
“It has not been uncommon to see significant cuts by states to higher-education funding—particularly during economic slowdowns—but ‘it is uncommon to do it in one fell swoop,’ Nick Hillman, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told me,” wrote Harris. “Alaska had a deficit, and the governor had promised not to raise taxes to deal with it, so he chose a favored punching bag to take the hit instead: higher education.”
The problem, Harris said, is that over the past several years, public views of colleges and universities have become sharply split, with Republican confidence declining by double digits — a trend bolstered by right-wing media outrage about supposed liberal bias and censorship of conservatives on campuses. And that means that university budgets are increasingly at risk of being on the chopping block in some red states — especially states where, as in Alaska, a single politician has the power to axe $130 million with the stroke of a pen.
“In rural states, where many residents lack easy access to colleges and universities, those cuts can hit especially hard,” wrote Harris. “The elimination of state funding, the Alaska system’s president lamented, could result in the closure of one of its campuses. The students who rely on that university would be left in the lurch, needing to travel farther to get to one of the school’s remaining campuses. The task of getting an education, for those in rural communities where a college degree is already hard to come by, would become a little harder.”
“Alaska may be an extreme case, but it shows one possible fate for public colleges in an age of mistrust: wounded by a thousand small cuts, and then a machete,” Harris concluded.