University of Alaska president says a ‘phoenix’ will rise from the ashes

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen appears on an episode of Forum@360 in Juneau in 2018. (Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen put a positive spin on the university system’s outlook in his 2020 State of the University address Friday afternoon.  

His speech during the AlaskaCAN! Conference in Anchorage largely focused on the public university system’s accomplishments and value to the state. 

“Our research really provides terrific quality for what happens in our classrooms. In addition to that, it is an economic engine. With the state’s investment of $25 million, we return $150 [million],” Johnsen said.  

But Johnsen did not shy away from UA’s current budget woes. 

In 2019, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed an unprecedented $135 million cut to state funding for the UA system — about a 41% reduction.

After a tense budget back-and-forth over the summer, Dunleavy and the then-chairman of the UA Board of Regents ultimately agreed to a smaller, $70 million cut spread over three years. That includes a $25 million cut in the current academic year.

“Had that [initial] cut gone into effect, we would be attending a memorial service here today rather than recommitting ourselves to serving the state’s need for a strong, resilient university system,” Johnsen said. 

Johnsen’s speech follows an announcement earlier in the week that University of Alaska Anchorage leaders are looking at deleting academic programs to close budget gaps.

Johnsen said the program reviews are taking place across UA’s three universities: UAA, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast.  

“Yes, tough decisions will need to be made. Programs will be reduced and discontinued,” Johnsen said. “But as we take our destiny in our own hands, as these decisions are made, the interests of our students are first, always.”

The proposed program cuts at UAA is the latest announcement in a series of concerning news for the University of Alaska system. 

In January, preliminary data showed that UAA experienced a 10% drop in enrollment this fall. It’s one of the largest declines the university has seen in years. 

But Johnsen likened UA to a phoenix that rises from the ashes with “life and hope and light, with resilience.”

UA, he said, is planning for the future.  

“And that vision for the University of Alaska in 2040 is for a seamless higher education system — a network, if you will,” Johnsen said. “With access for students and faculty and staff and community people, no matter where they are in their lives, to all of the high quality opportunities that the university offers for discovery, and learning, and service.”

Johnsen said that UA is in the early stages of its first-ever statewide philanthropic campaign. It is also working to increase enrollment and to generate more revenue through tuition and research funds.  

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