As the University of Alaska grapples with budget cuts, its leader may leave

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen. (Courtesy University of Alaska)

The head of Alaska’s public university system is potentially leaving the state to lead the University of Wisconsin System. 

The UW system announced Tuesday that Jim Johnsen is the sole finalist to become its president. Johnsen will go through multiple interviews next week for the job.

Johnsen’s possible departure from the University of Alaska system comes at a tumultuous time for UA. The university system struggled with an unprecedented budget battle last year that launched it into chaos. It’s continuing to try to close a series of deep budget gaps driven by cuts to state funding, declining enrollment and the coronavirus pandemic.

Related: Facing ‘immediate and significant financial headwinds,’ UA regents to consider controversial merger

In an email to UA students and employees on Tuesday, Johnsen wrote that he wasn’t looking for another job when he was nominated for the position in Wisconsin, “but the position aligns with my experience and skills as a university leader.”

“The opportunity to lead a larger university is an exciting prospect, and Madison is in very close proximity to our family,” Johnsen wrote.

Johnsen was named UA president in 2015. Under his leadership, he spearheaded efforts to consolidate the university system as state funding declined. The proposal to consolidate faced widespread pushback, and the UA Board of Regents tabled it last year after the governor walked back his budget veto. The governing body is expected to discuss a controversial option later this week to merge the University of Alaska Southeast into the system’s other universities.

The University of Wisconsin System is a constellation of 26 campuses. It’s one of the country’s largest systems of public higher education. 

In its announcement Tuesday, the Wisconsin system said its presidential search committee unanimously agreed on Johnsen as its first choice as a finalist, describing him as a strong, qualified and collaborative leader.

It also said the pandemic posed “unanticipated and unprecedented circumstances and obstacles” to the search.

“Several candidates removed their names from consideration near the end of the process, with some expressing concern over being named publicly as a finalist during the pandemic,” the announcement said.

Faculty in Wisconsin, however, are raising concerns with the selection of Johnsen as a finalist, reported Wisconsin Public Radio. Some said Wisconsin faculty, staff and students were shut out of the selection process. Also, they pointed to Alaska faculty’s no confidence votes in Johnsen in 2017 and 2019.

“These are disqualifying attributes in any candidate,” said a statement from the Wisconsin Conference of the American Association of University Professors. “Basic norms of decency and respect toward our colleagues in Alaska dictate that we oppose Johnsen’s candidacy in the strongest possible terms.”

The Wisconsin group called on the university system’s governing board to withdraw Johnsen’s candidacy immediately and declare a failed search. In a separate statement, the University of Wisconsin-Madison chapter of the organization described Johnsen’s record as “deeply concerning” and called the search process “flawed.”

Johnsen wrote that he will be in discussions next week with the Wisconsin search committee and the university community, and expects the outcome of those talks by mid-June.

“In the meantime,” he wrote, “I remain committed to helping UA transform and address the challenges ahead.”

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.