President Pitney met with media to discuss budget, vision and impacts of COVID-19

Sept. 18, 2020

Members of the media were invited to a press conference with Interim President Pat Pitney on Tuesday Sept. 15, the first since taking helm of the university system in August. During the one-hour session she discussed the state’s financial picture, the university having faced 7 out of 8 years of budget reductions, and took questions from the press.

“At the end of the compact, which is fiscal year 22, we'll be down $120 million,” Pitney said. “That's over 30 percent of our unrestricted general fund base.”

She explained how the general fund base is critical for all other programs and activities whereby the university creates additional revenue.

“The general fund base provides the underlying core funding from which all other funding is earned -- tuition, grants -- it is the underlying basis of the services of the university,” Pitney said.

“My expectation is, working with the chancellors at the three universities, we will find our way to a smaller footprint, but that smaller footprint will have very strong, high-quality programs.”

She described the important role that the university plays in driving Alaska’s economy and providing a skilled workforce. She cited the success in providing Alaska-trained engineers and nurses as one key example, noting that students trained in Alaska are more likely to stay here and stay with their employers, thereby reducing costly overturns.

She also discussed the importance of the research conducted at the university, especially in the Arctic, renewable energy, and unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as the grant funding and investment the research programs bring.

She answered questions about no longer pursuing the study to merge UAS-UAF, citing the need to create certainty and build trust with Alaska’s students and communities. She recognized the important role that regional colleges play in their local communities, citing Ketchikan’s maritime training and relationship with the coast guard as one example.

“I want to create certainty and I want to create trust and confidence,” Pitney said. “That's how our universities will succeed, is with the trust of the communities that our programs are here and here to stay.”

She also answered questions about the impact of COVID-19 and the role that the university plays in workforce development and economic recovery. 

“We had 40,000 people unemployed in March,” Pitney said. “The jobs that have been lost aren't going to be coming back right away. I firmly believe that there's going to be different jobs that are created, and not all the jobs that have gone are going to come back post COVID. But I think this is the perfect time for people to go back to school.”

When questioned about enrollment the news was actually positive. Even though enrollment is down across the system, it’s better than what was projected this spring.

“We’re down 8 percent versus what we projected. We were projecting in May -- I've heard anywhere from 30 percent to 15 percent -- but I think we were projecting 15 percent down in May, and we're 8 percent down now with some areas of strength and growth.”

She also said that COVID has had approximately a $15 million impact on the university, in particular in auxiliary operations such as food and housing, but that federal relief funds are helping mitigate the impacts. Reducing the footprint of the university and building trust in the community will be critical in stabilizing funding in the future.

“I will be spending a lot more time connecting what each place does and what it means to their community, what it means to our state economy, and why this is essential to our economic recovery,” Pitney said. “And at the same time, focus on how we make the university operate as lean as possible so that the programs are up front and center and serving the state.”

Pitney was asked about the potential for expanding online training programs, which she noted have been a part of the university’s offerings for more than 20 years. She also was asked to speak about the board’s decision to reduce UAA athletics.

“My background is sports and NCAA athletics,” Pitney said. “And it's heartbreaking to have to face a decision like that. But having said that, two months before we discontinued more than 25 academic programs. And with those academic programs, the savings was $4 million dollars. These athletic programs, where we still maintain a full suite of division II athletics in Anchorage, these athletic programs save $2 million. We've been cut $120 million dollars over the past several years.”

When asked why she took this position during these times, Pitney replied “I truly believe in how important the university is to the state and its future.”

A variety of news stories were generated by this conversation, including these listed below. She intends to hold additional media availabilities during her interim term.