Dr. Jim Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska, speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at the Moose Lodge on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Dr. Jim Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska, speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at the Moose Lodge on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Empire Live: UA President Jim Johnsen at the Juneau Chamber Luncheon

Johnsen talks about UA changes with local business owners

Summary: There are challenges ahead but they are manageable, Johnsen said. While there has been a lot of negative coverage of the university system’s budget problems, UA remains a thriving force in Alaska and will continue to provide for Alaskans, Johnsen said.

1 p.m.

Someone asks why Johnsen is choosing to give a speech to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and not the UAS student body.

I meet with students all the time, Johnsen says, they know my phone number and I’m happy to meet with students.

The same person asks why the student body didn’t know about this speech months in advance.

“I don’t know,” Johnsen says, sometimes they’ve got to look into things.

Someone asks about the university’s land grant deficit.

Johnsen says that complications that occurred at statehood has complicated how the university system gets land. The federal government said the university will get the land from the state but state laws have complicated how the land is given.

There’s about 5 million acres out there right now, Johnsen says, it’s out there and it’s coming to us in the next couple of years.

Someone (the same person who asked about why he hasn’t met with UAS students) asks if Johnson plans to meet with UAS students regarding a possible tuition increase.

Yes, Johnsen said, there will be many public meetings he says. “But you yourself don’t have any plans to meet with students,” the person asks. “You invite me and I’ll be there,” Johnsen replies.

Do former graduates have a preference for the new chancellor job at UAS, someone asks.

I’ve talked about, ‘grow your own,’ and I think it matters a lot, Johnsen says. That’s not to say that someone from the lower 48 couldn’t come and do a great job but Alaska is a different place. “That will definitely be an important priority for us.”

12:50 p.m.

We face technical problems and adaptive problems, Johnsen says. Technical problems are those that can be solved by pulling out an excel spreadsheet and looking at what an interest rate might be.

Adaptive problems, which the university is facing, are the kinds where we have to identify, “what is core to us?” Some times it takes a long time to figure out. You can’t just make a policy, pass a law or send a memo. We’ve got a few years to make these tough decisions so that at the end of the day we’re walking out of this stronger.

Despite all the shots and all the negativity, we don’t have a choice. We have to come together as Alaskans to figure these issues out, Johnsen says. We’ve got to create an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes. We’ve been knocked down but we’re going to get back up in a way that’s positive.

Political polarization both nationally and in the state is causing some tension between a conservative governor and a university system that is perceived to be left-leaning, Johnsen says. Add to that the fiscal challenge and that’s going to create some conflict.

Alaska is quite of the line of having a large numbers of high income, low education jobs. Those are great and provide a lot of opportunity, Johnsen says, but it doesn’t help with diversifying our economy.

We’re expanding our online offerings, Johnsen says, Alaska leads the nation in people with some college education but no degree, and online education can help people who have moved away to complete their degrees.

12: 41 p.m.

“We’re monetizing physical assets, otherwise known as selling buildings and our land,” Johnsen said. We’re investing in our IT and consolidating administrative services.

In Alaska, 70% of philanthropic funding comes from big companies, Johnsen says, and we need to step up our alumni giving, he says.

We need to align our university tuition with our peers, Johnsen says, noting that tuition in Alaska is much lower than the national average.

The letter from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities sent a letter expressing concern at how the restructuring process was taking place, which raised some eyebrows for the university, Johnsen said, because they had been in close contact with the Commission.

The declaration of financial exigency was rescinded and the consolidation of the three universities was delayed until the University of Fairbanks completes its accreditation process in 2021.

12:35 p.m.

It created a lot of uncertainty amongst our students, many students and faculty left for states with more stable political and financial situations.

“I have never seen the university mentioned so often on the floor of the legislature,” Johnsen says. The public outpouring of support for the University of Alaska was incredible. We were able to reach a step down compact with the governor. If we didn’t go into that agreement the cumulative cut would’ve been $405 million. While we still have to make some very difficult decision it changes things from an existential to a difficult but manageable situation.

12:30 p.m.

UA has been in the news a lot recently, but the coverage has not been about how the university functions across the largest geographical area in the country, or award winning teachers, or how the university is helping Alaska Native communities. “Nope, that’s not what the articles were about,” Johnsen said.

Nor were the articles about how $100 million has been raised from private sources since 2017, or how the university system is a world leader in Arctic research.

The coverage was about the governor’s 41% base budget cut to the universities budget. That’s on top over 15% over the last couple years. There was coverage of the governor’s vetoes, and the legislature voting the budget back.

When you’re looking at a blade that big, Johnsen said, you’ve got to make some drastic decisions and the university declared financial exigency and we needed to make those decisions quickly. “These are all very drastic moves but when you’re looking at cuts this big you need to make those decisions.”

Juneau is one of my favorite places, Johnsen says, but come January it will be, “not one of my favorite places” as he’ll be back in the grind “with our friends the legislature.”

Caulfield is, “exhibit A of how grow your own programs work, when you train up your own people to do things,” Johnsen says. Caulfield has been with the University system for 35 year.

We have one of the top three search firms in the nation helping with the search for a new chancellor, Johnsen says, and representatives will be on the UAS campus in the coming weeks.

12:15 p.m.

We will be having a thorough search for a new chancellor, Caulfield says in reference to his own planned retirement in June. That process will involve community input, he says.

Caulfield is thanking all those who support the university system. “UAS is open for business,” he says. Classrooms and labs are open and students are out doing work, he says.

Caulfield is telling the audience about events which honored the UA Scholars program and student veterans.

12:05 p.m.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen is visiting the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Luncheon to talk about the recent changes to the University system. He is joined by University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor Rick Caulfield.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.

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