New UA head sees opportunity despite bleak fiscal landscape

Jim Johnsen at a meet and greet in Juneau, July 7, 2015. Johnsen is a candidate for University of Alaska president. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Jim Johnsen at a meet and greet in Juneau, July 7, 2015. Johnsen is a candidate for University of Alaska president. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

It’s been less than two weeks since Jim Johnsen took the helm as president of the University of Alaska. And the transition in leadership is coming at a time when the university system is attempting to streamline and rethink the way it operates.

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Johnsen sees an opportunity amid the dark cloud of declining state funding and budget cuts throughout the University of Alaska system.

“We play the single-most important role in creating a knowledge economy in Alaska,” he said. “And, so when I look long term, that’s the bright light that I’m looking at.”

He sees that knowledge economy playing a pivotal role in helping Alaska diversify an economy that has been primarily based around oil.

Specifically, on the heels of President Barack Obama’s visit to the state, as well as the growing prominence of climate change, Johnsen says there will be increased emphasis on Arctic research.

“We already lead the world in citations and academic journals on Arctic subjects,” Johnsen said. “We’re gonna continue to drive that and continue to lead.”

Despite the potential bright side of the university’s future, there will be more years of declining state funding. And Johnsen says he and the Board of Regents are taking that into account as they shape their budget request for the next fiscal year.

“We’re certainly going to be looking again at cost effectiveness,” he said. “Our approach is gonna be modest, because again, we read the papers, and I think we’ll be very reasonable in our request to the Legislature.”

In anticipation of fewer state dollars to work with, Johnsen says the University of Alaska and the University Foundation – which raises private money for the university – are pushing to develop a plan for alternative funding sources.

“They have agreed and are partnering to build out a campaign that is heavily focused on alumni,” Johnsen said. “It’s in the early stages right now of the planning of that campaign. But that is, I think, a really important development that you’ll be seeing soon.”

And if a proposed plan is approved by the Board of Regents, Johnsen could receive a performance bonus of $75,000 per year if certain benchmarks are hit. But, he says he’s planning on putting his own skin in the fundraising game.

“My wife and I have talked about it, and we will donate the bonus monies, whatever I’m able to achieve,” he said. “We’ll donate that to the university in various ways we have yet to figure out exactly how.”

The benchmarks the bonus would hinge on are increasing alumni donations, boosting the number of Alaska Native graduates and cutting administrative costs by 10 percent, annually.

Johnsen is on a 5-year contract, making $325,000 a year.

Despite new potential revenue sources, Johnsen says budget cuts are inevitable. Cuts at individual campuses have traditionally been made at the local level, and that will remain largely remain unchanged. From a statewide approach, Johnsen says he’ll be looking to reduce administrative costs.

Johnsen says there will also be an increased focus on collaboration and condensing of academic programs.

“There is collaboration happening,” he said. “You know, let’s say there aren’t enough students for a thermodynamics class in Anchorage and there aren’t in Fairbanks, but if they’re combined and there’s a faculty member available through video conferencing and other technologies, that thermo class can be taught on behalf of both universities by a faculty member.”

“Whether that person is in Anchorage in Fairbanks, it really shouldn’t matter.”

Through advances in distance learning technology, Johnsen believes the university can expand class availability in rural communities and for non-traditional students who might not be able to move to another location if a program is no longer based at their local campus.

“We’ll be looking at more self-paced courses so that people can take them on their time in their place with facilitation and coaching and other sorts of support from people in those locations,” he said.

Johnsen says he is committed to visiting every UA campus during his first year as university president.

The university faced a $28 million shortfall last year.