UA president optimistic in spite of challenges

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 - 12:50
  • University of Alaska president Dr. Jim Johnsen speaks during a presentation to the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

University of Alaska president Dr. Jim Johnsen will be the first to tell you he’s got a lot of work to do.

“We have some challenges,” Johnsen acknowledged during a speech to the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, March 15 at the ER Ale House in Eagle River.

Among the myriad issues facing the university are declining enrollment, state funding cuts and the far-flung nature of a system that includes main campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau and smaller campuses across the state.

“Enrollment is a big, big challenge for us,” he said, pointing out that only 4.3 percent of Alaskans are enrolled in the university system today compared to 6.3 percent in 1975.

Johnsen has been under siege from within his own university, where faculty at both UAA and UAF have voted “no confidence” in the president and his Strategic Pathways initiative, which has resulted in significant faculty cuts.

During his speech to the chamber, Johnsen said the university has almost a thousand fewer faculty and staff than it did three years ago. But he defended the stramlining process Strategic Pathways has brought to the university, which he said has cut needless duplication in administration.

Although the campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau operate independently, Johnsen said it didn’t make sense for all three to have their own purchasing departments, for example.

“The answer is, ‘No, we don’t need all that administration really,’” he said.

Johnsen said it was unfair to argue that faculty and students haven’t had input on the Strategic Pathways plan. He countered that more than 250 have been involved in the process since its inception.

“They’ve been in the room the whole time,” he said.

The idea behind Strategic Pathways, he said, is to have each branch of the university focus on what it does best. The University of Alaska Fairbanks, he said, is a global leader in Arctic research and UAF should remain the UA system’s primary research branch.

“It’s the number one Arctic research university on the planet,” he said.

By consolidating duplicate programs such as education and nursing, Johnsen thinks the university can grow.

“I think you can have confidence in our long term success,” he said.

He pointed to the strengths of the university system, such as its ability to produce quality employers for Alaska businesses.

“The University of Alaska is by far the number one producer of workforce,” in Alaska, he said. “It’s not even close.”

Although Johnsen readily acknowledges the university faces significant challenges (one plan currently being discussed in the state Legislature would cut UA funding by five percent next year), he thinks the future remains bright.

“We’re going to succeed, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

Contact Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or (907) 205-0082

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