Coffee with the President draws crowd

The Board of Regents conference room in the Butrovich Building was a buzz of conversations as over 160 staff members gathered for “Coffee with the President” on May 20. Coffee, juice and cookies provided by the president’s office fueled the audience for an hour-long discussion and question-and-answer session with UA System President Mark Hamilton.

The opening remarks included a reminder to everyone that UAF has initiated an energy-reduction drive this month because scheduled maintenance at the power plant requires the campus to purchase most of its power from  GVEA, at much higher cost to the university. He encouraged everyone to do all that is possible to reduce energy use, including turning off computers and monitors and unplugging unused electrical devices. The rest of the hour was dedicated to matters important to President Hamilton and ample time for questions.

One of the key points presented was reassurance that a 4.5 percent grid adjustment has been approved for staff at the start of the July 1 fiscal year.  Hamilton praised Statewide employees for all their hard work.

The discussion of the UA budget continued with a recap of the cost-saving measures put into place this past year. This past year, $3 million for Statewide’s operating budget was anticipated to come from interest income from  investment earnings. The market collapse meant that money, and more, needed to be made up through cost savings. This was managed through reducing travel expenses by 24 percent,  reducing the use of overtime, evaluating vacant positions to see if new hires could be delayed or eliminated,  cutting the Statewide marketing campaign,  and other steps to reduce current-year costs. Hamilton said he will continue to look for ways to reduce expenses and streamline operations in an all-out effort to avoid job losses.

Hamilton pointed out that the university fared well on the operating budget, with $2 million allotted for program growth, but only $3.2 million for the system’s capital budget. The backlog of deferred maintenance continues to build and funding for new construction was denied. Hamilton said it was “a huge mistake on the part of the state” to forgo investments in maintenance.

The prognosis for next year is uncertain. There was a state budget shortfall this year because of low oil prices, and the shortfall in upcoming years could be devastating. If these trends continue, it will be very hard to lobby for a 4.5 percent grid increase next year, Hamilton said. There is some hope however; oil prices are beginning to rise and could be back up to sustainable levels next year.

Hamilton said  that he doesn’t believe the Alaska gas pipeline will be built any time soon because there’s already plenty of natural gas on the market. There’s no way of knowing what will happen in the future, however, if a real push for cleaner energy increases demand. If the price for natural gas jumps, there could be enough incentive to develop Alaska’s natural gas resources and that will benefit Alaska’s economy and thus the university.  “God knows our resources have always managed to save us in the past,” Hamilton concluded.

He opened the floor to questions from staff members. Among the topics discussed were program development, health care, the land grant, pension programs, the BOR firearms policy on campuses, union survey calls, program consolidation, the College of Rural and Community Development and the Tanana Valley Campus, student wages, child care, growing vegetables on campus grounds and support for naming Brian Rogers as UAF Chancellor.

When asked pointedly if he would still be leading the institution in five years, the president told the crowd that he’ll be here at this time next year.

A miscommunication unfortunately prevented Anchorage employees from joining in via audio. The president has scheduled a new “Anchorage only” coffee on Monday, June 8, in the Bragaw Office Building, Room 102S, from 1:30-2:30 p.m.

The entire presentation, including Hamilton’s responses to questions, can be viewed online.

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