Capitol Live: University president says university tied to state’s future

Capitol Live: University president says university tied to state’s future

Follow along with live updates from Alaska’s Capitol.

5:48 p.m.

Looks like there’s a large crowd gathering outside Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s meeting on the budget in Anchorage. Twitter’s getting flooded with photos of the crowd and the setup. Remember, the governor’s meetings are not exactly public. As shown here, the administration has taken many steps to ensure that people can’t even be peeking in.

— Alex McCarthy

1:49 p.m.

Johnsen wraps up, still not talking about the effects the governor’s budget would have on the university system. He does insist that the university system is intertwined with the state’s economic success. In fact, he says, the university system is linked with the future of the state in general.

“As we assess the future of the university, let us do so through the eyes of that Alaska we all want,” Johnsen says.

— Alex McCarthy

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen gives his State of the University speech on Tuesday. (Screenshot)

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen gives his State of the University speech on Tuesday. (Screenshot)

1:43 p.m.

In reference to some of those previously mentioned problems (population loss, low college-going rates), Johnsen says large cuts to the budget would only make those worse. That’s the most overt reference he’s made to the budget proposal so far. He’s stayed pretty far away from that.

— Alex McCarthy

1:38 p.m.

Johnsen reels off a number of bleak statistics about the state in general, including that Alaska has the lowest college-going rate in the United States.

— Alex McCarthy

1:35 p.m.

Johnsen getting into money talk, kind of.

“Research expands knowledge, but it also brings unparalleled financial returns,” Johnsen says.

He says that for every one dollar the state invests in the university system, the schools return $6.

— Alex McCarthy

1:30 p.m.

Johnsen refers to the University of Alaska Anchorage’s loss of accreditation at its education school “a failure.” He thanks UAF and UAS for stepping in to help those students.

On April 8, the Board of Regents will decide whether to pursue accreditation in the programs that lost it, Johnsen says.

— Alex McCarthy

1:29 p.m.

A small crowd gathered in a public lounge at the Capitol to hear this speech. They’ve got it on the TV here and the volume is up. Still, almost everyone is scrolling on their phones, waiting for something more intriguing to happen.

— Alex McCarthy

1:23 p.m.

Johnsen says he just got back from Juneau where he was at University of Alaska Southeast.

“At UAS, students can study the ocean and glaciers at a campus set midway between an ocean and a glacier,” he says. “Pretty cool.”

— Alex McCarthy

1:21 p.m.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen is giving his State of the University address. Not much to report so far. He gives a brief overview of the university’s history. Then he points out that even though there are three separately accredited universities, the whole system is cohesive in its policies, its tech support and more.

— Alex McCarthy

12:45 p.m.

Sen. Scott Kawasaki has asked what specifically state lawmakers can do to help with the problem.

“Schools across the state are looked upon on doing all the education,” Biela says. “It’s also the community mental health that needs to get more funded because we’re suffering out (in rural Alaska).”

There’s some discussion about conversion therapy. Earlier in the presentation a member in the audience said he believes in Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. That prompted questions from the audience about what the foundation does to help prevent suicide among LGBTQ people, since their suicide rates are generally higher than the average population.

A representative from the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention says they are pushing prohibition of conversion therapy, which is one of the leading impacting factors for LGBTQ people who commit suicide.

The AFSP also provides training for people who are looking to start a support group for survivors of suicide loss.

— Mollie Barnes

12:40 p.m.

Some behaviors people exhibit when they are at risk for suicide:

  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Issues with sleep
  • Giving away possessions
  • Acting recklessly
  • Withdrawing from activities
  • Isolating from family and friends
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves

He says one of his friends quit smoking and drinking, and it was a sudden change in behavior, then a few weeks later he died by suicide.

“If there’s any change, ask ‘Are you OK?’” Biela says. “Trust your gut. Assume you’re the only one who’s going to reach out and ask.”

He says it’s important to be direct with the question, don’t ask, ‘Are you doing to do something stupid?’ ask specifically, ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’ Watch their expression. They will be thankful you even asked that question, he says.

How to reach out to someone:

  • Talk to them in private
  • Listen to their story
  • Express concern and caring
  • Ask directly about suicidal thoughts like ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’
  • Encourage them to seek mental health services — if you have to, take them with you or call the national care line

“Avoid minimizing their feelings,” he says. “Avoid trying to convince them life is worth living because they don’t care right now.”

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK. For emergencies call 911.

“Watch for the talk, the mood and the behavior,” Biela says.

— Mollie Barnes

12:30 p.m.

The family history of suicide is real, Biela says. It’s one impacting factor of suicide, along with environmental factors such as access to lethal means, exposure/contagion, prolonged stress and stressful life events.

“Young people are walking around the villages and seeing someone who died by suicide from their house,” Biela says. “It’s real out there for them.”

He says contagion doesn’t have to be right away. He says there have been three suicides of people recently who were family members or people involved in school shootings.

“We need a culture where everyone knows to be smart about mental health,” Biela says. “Talking to someone does not hurt. Being proactive about mental health can make mental health a priority.”

He says right now the law requires insurance to cover mental health the same as they cover physical health services.

Support for loss survivors and those with lived experience is important, he says.

“We all need support,” Biela says. “The most important thing you can put between a suicidal person and their way of ending their life is time. Bottom line what can you do? You need to have a conversation just like we’re having a conversation today. We need to have it open and directly, you cannot hide it.”

— Mollie Barnes

12:20 p.m.

How we talk about suicide matters, says Biela, because there’s a lot of stigma out there.

“Try to avoid using ‘he committed suicide’ instead say ‘he died by suicide,’” Biela says. “We try to avoid ‘failed or successful attempt,’ it’s either ‘suicide attempt’ or ‘death by suicide.’”

He says he’s known five people in one year who died by suicide. He says someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds.

“In the United States suicide is the tenth leading cause of death,” Biela says.

He says on average one person in Alaska dies by suicide every two days. It was the sixth leading cause of death in the state. Those statistics are based on 2016 data.

His new statistics are from 2019. On average one person dies by suicide every 44 hours, versus 48 from 2016, and it’s now the fifth leading cause of death.

“It’s time for organizations to come together…because for every suicide there’s 25 attempts,” Biela says. “I’ve been out here for 14-15 years, and I just realized that one suicide in a village affects the whole region, the relations, and the guilt behind it.”

Suicide has an economic impact of $69 billion per year in the United States, he says.

There are so many factors impacting why people take their own lives, Biela says. There’s no single reason why.

“The large majority of people who die by suicide have a mental health condition contributing to their death,” Biela says. But this is hard because a lot of people in villages have a stigma against getting prescriptions or help for mental illness.

Research has shown physical differences in the brains of people who die by suicide verses those who die for other reasons, Biela says.

“Most people who are suicidal are ambivalent about taking their life,” Biela says. “They don’t really want to die. They’re struggling with the pain that’s inside…But their pain was too deep, and it got to be too much.”

— Mollie Barnes

12:03 p.m.

The Suicide Prevention lunch and learn is getting started. Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux is sponsoring it.

James Biela is speaking, he’s from the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. He says he’s a survivor of suicide loss. They’re going through some introductions now of people in the room.

Biela is going to be giving an introduction to suicide prevention titled, “Talk Saves Lives.”

Dana Herndon is the Juneau delegation representative for U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.

She’s relaying a letter from Murkowski:

“Suicide is the leading cause of death in Alaska, and Alaska ranks second in the nation, nearly double the national rate,” Murkowski says in the letter. “My thoughts are with you as you educate policymakers about what can be done… Although I am in Washington today…my spirit stands alongside yours.”

A letter is being relayed from Sullivan:

“This is an issue that’s very difficult for so many to talk about, but we must,” Sullivan says in the letter. “I’ve been focused on helping bring more funding to states to stem the opioid crisis that’s caused so much despair across the country…and I understand is a contributor to suicide.”

He says in the letter that the best way for a survivor to break the cycle of violence is to have legislative counsel at that his POWER Act helps get deliver this counsel to those who need it. He says as a marine he saw what happens when veterans do not get the help they need after coming back from duty.

“Something very simple can be done, and that’s what we’re doing today, and that’s talk about it,” Biela says. “Talk saves lives.”

— Mollie Barnes

11:12 a.m.

An Alaska moose hunter can “rev up his hovercraft” in search of moose, the Supreme Court says.

Governor Mike Dunleavy, Attorney General Kevin Clarkson and Fish and Game Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang hailed today’s unanimous decision by the United States Supreme Court in favor of John Sturgeon, a moose hunter legally using a hovercraft on the Nation River in the Yukon Charley Preserve in 2007.

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court means the people of Alaska can continue to exercise their freedom to use state-owned waterways for every legal purpose, including economic development, recreation, hunting, and fishing, without illegitimate restrictions imposed by distant federal authorities,” said Clarkson in a press release.

The court on Tuesday limited the National Park Service’s authority to enforce laws and regulations on state-owned rivers in Alaska. Justices held unanimously that the Park Service can’t enforce a ban on amphibious vehicles known as hovercrafts on rivers that run through national conservation areas there.

The outcome was a victory for hunter John Sturgeon. Three park rangers ordered Sturgeon off the Nation River within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in northeast Alaska. They told him it was illegal to operate the noisy craft that can navigate shallow water or even mud.

Justice Elena Kagan said in her opinion that Sturgeon “can again rev up his hovercraft in search of moose.”

“This is more than a state rights issue, it is about life in Alaska,” said Vincent-Lang in a press release. “Here, our waterways are our lifeblood. Management authority impacts fishing, hunting, transportation and economic development—all the things Alaskans hold dear. With this decision the State can continue to do what it does best: manage Alaska’s resources for the benefit of all Alaskans.”

“This David and Goliath story – a man and his hovercraft against the full weight of the federal government – is far too familiar for Alaskans,” said Dunleavy in a press release. “But a shining example of our Alaskan spirit and determination. This is an overwhelming victory for John Sturgeon, all those that stood behind him and the State of Alaska and it is long overdue.”

Read the full story here.

— Mollie Barnes, The Associated Press

10:43 a.m.

Founders of the state’s constitution intended for a governor to appoint for judgeships candidates nominated by the Alaska Judicial Council, the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court said.

Chief Justice Joel Bolger, in recent remarks, defended the council’s process for vetting and nominating candidates after Gov. Mike Dunleavy filled one vacancy on the Palmer Superior Court but refused to fill another.

One of the seats is vacant. The second is soon to be.

Dunleavy, in a letter to the council last week, said he would not be making a second appointment from a list of three finalists the council sent him. He said there were qualified applicants “inexplicably” not nominated and requested the council’s reasoning.

Under the constitution, the governor is to fill a superior court vacancy by appointing one of two or more persons nominated by the council. The Alaska Supreme Court has held the council is within its right to send one more nominee than the number of positions to be filled.

State law calls for a governor to fill a superior court vacancy or appoint a successor for an impending vacancy within 45 days after receiving nominations from the council. That period has passed.

The Alaska GOP posted a message on Twitter saying that the governor was right to resist appointing lawyers who are not reflective of his views.

But many on Twitter called out the post, saying it is more important to uphold the constitution than appoint politically partisan judges.

Chris Dimond, who ran for the House District 33 seat and a member of the City and Borough of Juneau Docks & Harbors board, said on Twitter, “The Governor is breaking his oath to uphold the Alaska constitution (this SHOULD be what you are pointing out). What you are stating is opinion.”

— Mollie Barnes, The Associated Press

8:27 a.m.

This week, the governor is on the road getting feedback from the public on the budget. Committees are making their tweaks to the budget, and we can expect to see a legislative draft of their version of the budget soon.

Today there will be two events for suicide prevention. At noon in the Capitol, there will be a lunch and learn held by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. There will also be a candlelight vigil on the steps of the building in the evening hosted by AFSP Alaska Chapter and Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition.

The University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen will be delivering his state of the university address today at 1 p.m. in Fairbanks. Attend in-person at the Wood Center Ballroom, 1731 South Chandalar Drive on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus or view via live-stream broadcasting at

— Mollie Barnes

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