JIM JOHNSEN

GUEST COMMENTARY: Regardless of our structure, UA is committed to students

There has been much concern regarding the future of the University of Alaska, given the events of the last six months. I’d like to assure all Alaskans that, despite all the upset over our budget and the ongoing need to right-size, no matter what UA’s structure ends up being, UA must and will continue to provide broad access to high quality education and workforce training to students throughout the state. At statehood UA was established as a single legal and financial entity. Over the years, with support from the state, the university established new campuses and facilities across Alaska. The system grew from one university serving Alaskans at numerous locations to three separately accredited universities—each with a distinctive identity and its own administration. In 2012, due to decline in the number of students graduating from high school and changes in student preferences, UA student enrollment and associated tuition revenue began to decline. In 2014, state funding for the university followed as oil revenues fell. This year’s funding agreement with the governor provides for a $70 million reduction over three years. While this is far better than the $136 million reduction in one year originally proposed by the governor, by 2022 annual state funding to the university will have declined by $121 million (32 percent). These continued reductions require that we right-size the university without downsizing our geographic footprint. I believe many would agree that we should reduce unnecessary administration and focus resources on academic programs and student services. Of course the details matter, and each detail will impact numerous stakeholders. The immediate issue the Board of Regents must face is the $25 million budget reduction in the fiscal year that started in July, and the right-sizing that must happen as a result. Regents will do so with an eye on another $45 million in cuts over the next two years. In response to direction from the Board of Regents, we are implementing administrative consolidations across the system. We are collecting input on how best to combine duplicative academic colleges and schools, consolidate research institutes, and better integrate our community campuses. However, the savings we generate from these consolidations are limited by our current structure of three separately accredited universities. So the broader question the legislature, the governor, the Board of Regents and all Alaskans are asking is whether we can afford, and effectively staff, three universities, or whether one university, with programs based in locations across the state, can more cost effectively deliver programs and services to all students. Maintaining three separate universities has the advantage of initially requiring the least structural change and disruption, while preserving local control and identity. However, it also requires three administrations and multiple administrators. This comes with a cost in real dollars which are then not available for students. The three-university structure also has built-in geographic and political constituencies with inevitable silos. That structure impacts UA’s adaptability to respond to a fast changing technological, economic, and demographic reality. It promotes unnecessary competition rather than collaboration, as well as costly differences in student processes and requirements that are barriers to students’ access and progress. In this funding environment, even if the Board of Regents ultimately decides to maintain three separate universities, those universities will need to change. If savings do not come from elimination of senior administration and redundant bureaucracies, savings must come from the faculty and staff who deliver our academic programs and student services. The board will need to assess whether preserving the current structure is worth the cost to students and academic programs. With just 27,000 students across the state, our entire system is the size of one regional university in the Lower 48. There is no question that changing back to a single university would pose issues in institutional and program accreditations, as well as challenges to maintaining local responsiveness and a sense of local identity. Change also creates uncertainty and fear, some real, because jobs and programs will be lost, but some groundless because opportunities for innovation will be created. A transition to one university would not occur without successful accreditation. Nor would it mean that all programs and services would be located in one area. One university would make use of faculty, staff, and facilities across the state to offer programs in-person and on-line to meet student demand. Change must happen, regardless of UA’s structure. As we right-size and consolidate administration and academic programs, the Board of Regents and administration will methodically evaluate the options and proceed with a structure that makes the most sense for our students and the state. Because in the end, the University of Alaska must continue to provide access to a high quality education to students all across Alaska. Jim Johnsen is the 14th president of the University of Alaska.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Governor holds UA future in hands with veto pen

In this austere budget environment, and after intense scrutiny, the Legislature passed a budget that includes a reasonable $5 million general fund reduction for the University of Alaska. In the next few days, the governor will decide whether the state will continue its investment in the university — allowing Alaskans of all ages to carry on, uninterrupted, with their vocational, continuing, or higher education — or veto a large portion of the UA budget. Make no mistake, the university cannot absorb an additional, substantial reduction in state general funds without abruptly halting numerous student career pathways mid-stream, eliminating services, or shutting down community campuses or universities. An additional reduction of even $10 million — on top of the $51 million in cuts we’ve already taken — will mean the discontinuation of programs and services with little or no notice, and that in turn will have ripple effects, damaging UA’s ability to generate revenue and causing even greater harm across the state. Severe reductions in state Undesignated General Funds, or UGF, as originally proposed by the governor would require closure of hundreds of programs and affect thousands of students. To provide context for such a reduction, $134 million is nearly the equivalent of the total UGF budget for University of Alaska Anchorage and UA Southeast combined. At that level we may need to cut whole programs or close one or more of our universities, UAA, UA Fairbanks or UAS. But a university system is not like a typical corporation or factory; it needs a critical mass of faculty with different specialties to provide a quality education. Eliminating whole programs to reduce costs does not eliminate our responsibility to affected students. We are obligated to complete their programs, which carries costs that delay any immediate savings. The university’s total budget this year is comprised of $327 million from the state (about 40 percent). The remainder comes from tuition and fees paid by our students, research grants and contracts, proceeds from land development, and private donations. However, those private revenue sources will inevitably be harmed if general fund support is reduced. Prior cuts have had the effect of reducing opportunities for our students and services to our communities, while increasing tuition. The cumulative reduction in the university’s budget of $195 million over the last five years has resulted in significant reductions in administrative staff and services, to the point that further reductions will compromise UA’s ability to meet its many obligations. Indeed, the university’s statewide administration, which provides consolidated support services, has taken a 37 percent cut over the last several years, almost triple the average cut across the university system. Still, the university remains a highly accessible and affordable path to an excellent education and the opportunities that only education can provide in the workplace. However, that will not continue with further substantial reductions. We have had numerous meetings with the governor and his team, demonstrating how the university has focused its mission, reduced costs, increased private fundraising, developed strategic plans with measurable goals, created a task force to look at the university’s structure, and developed an exciting vision for how the university enables Alaskans to create a strong and sustainable future for our state. The governor was receptive, and I think impressed with the work that’s been accomplished by the university. However, he may feel compelled to follow through with his original proposal to reduce the university’s appropriation. As a result, if the governor vetoes a substantial amount, I ask that you contact your legislator to request that he or she consider overriding that veto. The educational investments and opportunities for thousands of Alaskans will depend on it. Jim Johnsen is the president of the University of Alaska.

GUEST COMMENTARY: UA investing in innovation to help drive the economy

For many years, universities have competed for talented students by promoting academic programs, affordability, athletic teams, and campus life. Those elements remain a part of campus recruitment, but today smart students are increasingly making choices based on a university’s innovation and entrepreneurship programs. There’s no doubt that a community that values innovation is good for our students, our community partners, and our state. At the University of Alaska, we recognize that investing in innovation and aggressively supporting applied learning is critical. That’s why we’re focused on more innovation in our business and engineering programs, course design, labs and maker spaces, and why we are launching start-up competitions and hackathons. Innovation generates wonderful ideas and great societal leaps, and more importantly, it creates new businesses, inventions, patents, and jobs. The university’s Board of Regents has made economic development one of its top goals for higher education in Alaska. Our budget includes investment in innovative programs at our university campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau that drive regional and statewide economic development. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is globally recognized for its Arctic-related research programs and faculty; and, in a number of centers and research offices at our other campuses, the university is working to make life better for Alaskans. One emphasis is on commercializing our research to support economic diversification and the creation of new jobs and small businesses in Alaska. That’s why we’re launching the Center for Innovation, Commercialization, and Entrepreneurship, or Center ICE, at UAF. Center ICE is an innovation hub designed to accelerate innovation, promote economic diversification, and encourage entrepreneurialism in the University of Alaska system. The first Center ICE class will consist of five university spinoff companies and approximately 10 individual innovators and entrepreneurs. The intellectual property produced at the university represents great potential to benefit the private sector. Center ICE will contribute to the university’s broader innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, and is partnering with Alaskan mentors, investors, and entrepreneurs as well as organizations like the Small Business Development Center, the Launch Alaska business accelerator in Anchorage, the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation, and UAA’s Business Enterprise Institute. Initially, the center will be on the UAF campus, but the long term plan is to move it off campus to a place in the Fairbanks community. This new phase also will include a research park for collaborating with industry partners while also continuing to support university spinoffs, which will benefit from the opportunity to network with industry. This addition to our already innovative capabilities is important. World-class researchers and innovators at the University of Alaska have developed new products, processes, and innovations in a number of areas including fighting cancer with nanoparticles, working on the capture and conversion of methane gas into energy and the development of hydro-technologies, creating and patenting a tiny infrasound sensor sensitive enough to detect volcanic eruptions or nuclear explosions from distant locations, studying carbon cycling and distribution in coastal forests, and so much more. Recently, I announced the inaugural President’s Innovation Challenge at UAA. This challenge is designed to encourage students to partner with Anchorage community and business members to solve community problems through an innovative solution, whether an app, a policy recommendation, or a new business. This year’s challenge calls on UAA students to work with community and business partners. UAA’s Center for Economic Development will lead the challenge, mentoring participants throughout the process, and we’re excited to see what the teams create. The Invent Alaska competition is also underway at UAF and UAS, which rewards winners with support to commercialize their innovations. It’s easy to see that the university is committed to innovation and entrepreneurship and we believe these programs are tremendous opportunities for both students and community members. More than 500 colleges and universities have established programs specifically focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. At the University of Alaska, our ranks include Carnegie Fellows, Truman Scholars, UA Scholars, Fulbright Scholars, and Rhodes Scholars. These bright Alaskans will become tomorrow’s leaders, creating new technologies that meet needs and create opportunities. From the beginning, Alaska’s climate and harsh environment demanded that we innovate simply to survive. This spirit drives innovation at the University of Alaska. I am proud of our progress, but like many Alaskans, I am concerned about our future. That’s why the university is leading the way in creating the innovative and dynamic Alaska we all want. Going forward, you will see even more emphasis on innovation, entrepreneurship, research parks, and business incubators. At the University of Alaska, we see the opportunity, and we are all in. Join us to create a bright future for Alaska. Jim Johnsen is the 14th president of the University of Alaska.

COMMENTARY: University of Alaska is rising to challenge of budget cuts

There was a time in Alaska when leadership was seized by those who had inexhaustible enthusiasm and strong motivation to address the challenges faced by our state. Today, our leaders face demands — financial, social and educational — that are daunting. Now, more than ever, is the time for Alaskans to step up and join together to address our state’s challenges and seize our opportunities. At the University of Alaska, we understand the challenge, and we have felt the pain of fiscal reality. Our budget gap heading into the coming year is $40 million, even after the Legislature brought our operating budget up to the level requested by the governor.  Despite this challenge, we cannot, and will not, sit idly by and wish for a different outcome. Rather, we are devoting our brains, our hands, and our hearts to our state’s most pressing imperative: educating Alaskans with the skills and the know-how to become teachers, nurses, and engineers; to innovate and create new businesses that diversify our economy; to serve and contribute to our communities; and to become the leaders who build a bright future for our state. The university is driving the educational imperative for Alaska. We have launched initiatives to become an even stronger, more effective institution that better meets Alaska’s educational and workforce needs. The first initiative, Strategic Pathways, is engaging the university community and experts from around the state to determine how we can expand access to our programs to all Alaskans, operate more cost effectively, and build on the unique strengths at each campus to meet our state’s higher education needs. More than 100 Alaskans came together last week to begin work on seven major program areas. They made great progress and are set to present reports to me in mid-August. I will then formulate recommendations and action plans for implementation. Central to our commitment to Alaska’s education imperative is an emphasis on teacher education. The university is reinvigorating our teacher education programs. We must graduate more teachers to serve the needs of K-12 students who then would be more likely to go on to higher education, whether at one of our community campuses across the state or at one of our main campuses. We also are reinvesting in programs geared to encourage and prepare rural Alaskan students for a science, math, or engineering education. We must reverse the trend of the declining pursuit of higher education in Alaska. Despite our growing population, university enrollment has stayed fairly constant over the last 40 years: approximately 30,000. That means, as a share of the population, the percentage of Alaskans enrolled in college has fallen by 32 percent since 1980, while the demand for a highly skilled workforce has been and will continue to increase. Last fall, we learned some startling statistics from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, or NCHEMS: Alaska’s workforce will need 65 percent of its workers to have some higher education by 2025. According to NCHEMS, we are at 37 percent. We need to increase our skilled workforce production by 76 percent over the coming decade. We hire 70 percent of our new K-12 teachers each year from outside Alaska — 70 percent! We need to understand the changes in demand for our economy and take advantage of the opportunities. Our environment is changing, with dramatic effects on Alaska’s infrastructure, wildlife, society and culture. Our economy has for too long been dependent on just a few sectors, with one in particular playing a dominant role, and it is in decline. What will take its place? Whatever it is, you can be sure it will need a highly skilled workforce, best prepared by the University of Alaska. Higher education attainment is strongly correlated with increased income, health, civic participation and family success whether in rural Alaska or in our cities. Improving the future lives of our students can directly, and positively, impact the future of our state. Another major initiative is to complete construction of the Engineering Building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This initiative is part of a statewide partnership with engineering leaders in Anchorage and Fairbanks. UAA’s building was fully funded and completed last year. UAF’s building was not fully funded and will need $37.5 million to complete. The Board of Regents decided to authorize UA to take the necessary steps (through bonding) to complete the building so that we can enroll and educate more engineers to meet Alaska’s workforce needs.  A third major initiative is to assess the efficiencies of single accreditation for the university versus three separately accredited institutions. The pros and cons will be researched and weighed objectively, and the regents will make a final determination this fall whether our interests in access, quality, and cost effectiveness are best served under one or three accreditations. The long summer months have traditionally been a time of transformation. In July 1776, we exerted our sovereign freedom with the signing of the Declaration of Independence; in July 1862, the Morrill Act became effective creating land grant universities like ours; in July 1915, the cornerstone establishing the University of Alaska was laid; and in July 1969, we walked on the moon for the first time. Just as we recommit to our nation’s enduring values when we celebrate its founding this week, I hope you will join the University of Alaska in our work to lead the state forward through higher education. Now more than ever, this is our time to build an even greater university and, as a result, an even greater state. Alaska depends on us to resolve its most pressing needs through our research, creative activities, teaching and learning, outreach and service to our people. We have a done a great job over the years in performing to our purpose, but the work is never done, and there remain many large needs, and many exciting opportunities that require our renewed commitment. We understand what is at risk if we fail to lead. It is a simple truth, in all times and in all places, 100 years ago when we were a fledgling university and right now as Alaskans face an uncertain future. But, as Alaska’s great university, lead we must, and we will with confidence, untiring enthusiasm, and with that special grit that makes Alaskans rise up together for a strong and prosperous future for us all. Jim Johnsen is the president of the University of Alaska System.  
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