University of Alaska president resigns amid blowback from Wisconsin job search

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen appears at a forum in Juneau in 2018. (Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The leader of Alaska’s public university system has resigned after five years on the job.

Monday’s surprise announcement from the University of Alaska Board of Regents comes amid escalating calls for Jim Johnsen to step down following his interviews for a job in Wisconsin, and comments he made about diversity and the PFD during that process.

In brief remarks during Monday’s emergency board meeting, UA Regents Chair Sheri Buretta said regents and Johnsen agreed that he’d resign. 

“The decision regarding a change in leadership was mutual and was made after considerable reflection by the board,” she said.

In a phone interview afterward, Buretta said multiple factors contributed to Johnsen’s resignation, but she would not go into specifics. All other regents declined to comment Monday and referred questions to Buretta, or didn’t respond to calls and messages. Johnsen declined an interview request.

“I’ve been on the Board of Regents for the past five years,” Buretta said, “and we’ve had numerous challenges and successes, and so there’s nothing in particular, other than it was just the right time for the university and President Johnsen to come to this decision to be able to move the university forward.” 

Johnsen, 62, has served as the president of the UA system since 2015. He previously worked in executive positions at Alaska Communications and Doyon, Ltd. 

At UA, Johnsen led the system through a series of budget cuts imposed by state lawmakers as Alaska experienced a sharp decline in oil revenue. He also spearheaded efforts to consolidate the three-university system — often drawing criticism from faculty and students.

Then, early this month, the University of Wisconsin system announced Johnsen was the only finalist to become its president. Johnsen later withdrew from consideration following pushback from Wisconsin faculty and students.

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

Also this month, UA’s faculty union began circulating a petition calling for Johnsen’s immediate resignation. The reasons cited included a “disastrous decline in state funding,” continuous declines in student enrollment and sinking morale. Also, it criticized Johnsen for seeking a job elsewhere “during this time of extreme duress” for the UA system.

Regents have held four emergency meetings within the last week.

On Monday, following a 45-minute executive session, regents voted 11-0 to accept Johnsen’s resignation. 

In a statement from UA Monday, Johnsen is quoted as saying the past five years were challenging, but progress was still made. Buretta praised Johnsen for his commitment to UA, and for leading the university system with integrity. 

Buretta said Michelle Rizk will serve as acting UA president, effective immediately, until an interim president is named. Rizk is UA’s vice president of university relations and its chief strategy, planning and budget officer. She has worked at UA for 22 years.

Johnsen will help with the transition to new leadership until July 1, according to UA’s statement

Regents will appoint an interim president by July 15. A formal search for the next UA president will begin later this year.

Heather Batchelder, president of the UA Faculty Alliance, said she hopes the next UA leader has worked as a faculty member, and wants to involve faculty more in decisions.

“We would like to see a leader who has a vision of education in Alaska as a public good, rather than someone who is more focused on a business model approach to education,” she said.

Others gave Johnsen more credit, saying he was tasked with a difficult job.

“Jim Johnsen served the University of Alaska under historically challenging circumstances,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said in a prepared statement. “He was saddled with the impossible task of managing a university system facing a 44 percent cut in state funding.” 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy also issued a statement Monday thanking Johnsen for his service to higher education.

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Reach Alaska Public Media reporters Tegan Hanlon and Nathaniel Herz at thanlon@alaskapublic.org and nherz@alaskapublic.org.