There are technical challenges and there are adaptive challenges, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said to the audience at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce weekly Luncheon.
Technical challenges are the kind that can be solved by consulting a spreadsheet, calculating what an interest rate might be and how that will affect things.
Adaptive problems are the more existential kind, the kind where you have to ask “what is core to us?” The university system in Alaska is currently facing a whole host of adaptive problems Johnsen said.
“Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out,” Johnsen said. “You can’t just make a policy, pass a law or send a memo.”
But while the university is facing a tough situation, Johnsen said, it wasn’t something that couldn’t be managed. In February, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed a 41% cut to the university’s base budget, Johnsen said, and that was on top of the 15% reductions UA had faced over the previous couple of years.
The public outpouring of support, Johnsen said, was unprecedented in his tenure.
“I have never seen the university mentioned so often on the floor of the Legislature,” Johnsen said. Eventually, the university signed a compact with the governor that would reduce the university’s budget by $70 million over three years, rather than a cumulative $405 million, according to Johnsen.
“While we still have to make some very difficult decision it changes things from an existential to a difficult but manageable situation,” Johnsen said.
Johnsen was critical of some of the media coverage UA had received over the past couple of months saying that articles had focused on the more negative aspects of the university’s situation. The coverage was not about how the university managed programs across the largest geographical area in the United States or how the university was a world leader in Arctic research.
“Nope, that’s not what the articles were about,” Johnsen said.
He said the university had raised over $100 million from private donors since 2017 and UA is looking at other ways of saving money.
“We’re monetizing physical assets, otherwise known as selling buildings and our land,” Johnsen said.
UA is working on updating its information and technology infrastructure with an eye to expanding its online education. Online courses are not meant to replace in-person classes, Johnson said, but they do provide opportunities for people living in remote locations.
UA is also looking at consolidating its administrative services and eliminating “duplicative” programs, or similar programs at different campuses.
Johnsen said the university had taken some hits recently, “we’re going to get back up in a way that’s positive.”
But not all the members of the audience shared Johnsen’s optimistic outlook.
Kieran Poulson-Edwards, staff writer at the University of Alaska Southeast’s student newspaper Whalesong, asked why Johnsen chose to talk to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and not the UAS student body.
Johnsen said the meeting had been scheduled months ahead of time, and he meets with students all the time.
“They know my phone number, and I’m happy to meet with students,” Johnsen said.
Poulson-Edwards asked if Johnsen had any plans to meet with students regarding proposed tuition increases.
Johnsen explained the process by which tuition hikes would be discussed, which involves meetings with the Board of Regents and university chancellors/
Poulson-Edwards asked, “but you yourself don’t have any plans to meet with students?”
“You invite me, and I’ll be there,” Johnsen said.
Poulson-Edwards said the student body at UAS has concerns about the administration’s transparency.
“From what I’ve heard from other students,” Poulson-Edwards said in an interview, “they feel like the administration hasn’t been totally clear on their motivation behind some of the changes and the possibility of changes within the UA system.”
He said that many students were concerned about possible tuition increases. Johnsen said during the speech that the University of Alaska has tuition rates lower than the national average.
“We need to align our tuition with our peers,” Johnsen said.
Johnsen seemed confident the UA system would be able to work through its current fiscal constraints, even if the decisions made would be difficult.
However, he alluded to the upcoming legislative session that might bring additional cuts to the university budget.
“Juneau is one of my favorite places,” Johnsen said.
But come January it will be “not one of my favorite places, as we’ll be back in the grind with our friends the Legislature.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.