These are grim days for college hockey in Alaska, as UAA and UAF hockey look to be on the chopping block in a period that UAA athletic director Keith Hackett called “very, very trying times” on Thursday. The University of Alaska system released a report on Thursday that seeks to confront the potential complete general fund cut in athletics across the system. The report’s options aren’t crystal clear, but I’ll give the rundown as I best understand it:
- Athletics at either Fairbanks or Anchorage could have a complete cut — or both could be cut altogether. These cuts are driven by a $50MM shortfall in the UA system that would likely cut General Fund contributions to Athletics by 50% in FY 2020 from FY 2016 levels and remove those contributions altogether by 2025. College Hockey News reports that UAA will have to trim $1.7MM from its budget by July 2017 after already absorbing a $1MM cut last year. UAA’s hockey operating budget is $1.9MM per Hackett, while the News Miner reports that UAF hockey costs are around $2.1MM.
- The UA system might approach the NCAA with a consortium model for athletics, with some sports playing in Fairbanks while others play in Anchorage. This would allow UAF to keep skiing and rifle while UAA could keep basketball. The issue with this is that teams would play under the Alaska banner, but students seeking to play these sports would have their academic choices limited by their sport assignment. The two schools are 300 miles apart, so one can’t argue that playing and studying could be separated easily. The two schools field teams in 23 sports, and the cuts would be down to “10+”, the NCAA minimum for Division II. Ice hockey, skiing, and rifle are not sanctioned at the Division II level.
- Both schools would drop to Division II, ending the Division I-only programs and having all competition in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. The expensive sports — mainly hockey — would be replaced by less-expensive ones (1/3 – 1/2 the cost) per the Alaska Dispatch News.
All is not bleak:
Hackett, though clearly frustrated by the impact budget cuts handed down by the Legislature will have on athletics, was quick to say that nothing in the report is finalized and actions by the Board of Regents aren’t limited to just those options.
“Everything is on the table, but there is no decision about programs at this time,” he said.
UA President Jim Johnsen released a statement:
“There is a lot to think about here with the options presented, but I am particularly pleased that these groups have stepped up, stayed with the charge, and generated not only what I asked them to evaluate, but they have put forward some innovative ideas to realign university resources.”
If there’s a school that understands this situation, it’s UAH. Alabama doesn’t have the same kind of fiscal problems that the State of Alaska does, but a $25MM cut was levied for the most recent budget by the Alaska state legislature and signed by the governor. That decision is driving these cuts, which are not limited by any means to just athletics — academic programs are on the block as well. All of this reminds me of a lot of the rumblings that I’ve heard from Tuscaloosa about how the programs shouldn’t try to compete and that UAH should keep athletics costs down. I don’t think that this attitude has prevailed — UAH has added lacrosse, so cost containment overall wouldn’t appear to be an issue — but dividing and conquering has always seemed to be the way of the Alabama system.
It’s also very clear that state apportionments to education have steadily dropped over the last 20 years. I remember when I was an undergraduate at UAH (I started 19 falls ago) that UAH’s general fund was sourced around 50% from money from Montgomery; for FY 2015, it was 21.3%. (Note, that page is a rolling entry, so if you look at this in three years, the numbers will be different.)
It’s a difficult time for public higher education. Our three schools have high travel costs due to being geographic outliers. We nearly lost our program; it would be a tragedy if UAA and/or UAF lost theirs. With two of the three options ending hockey for at least one campus, this is pretty grim. I don’t really see a reading of this where neither program is lost unless the general fun cuts come from other areas. It feels very much like one program will go down, and I honestly expect both to be axed.
Public comment on Pathways has been sparse, especially in support of athletics. Alaskans who love hockey, get out and make your voice heard — don’t confine your frustration to the USCHO Fan Forum.