My Turn: The challenges ahead will make the University of Alaska stronger

  • Wednesday, January 13, 2016 2:21pm
  • Opinion

As I reflect on my first 120 days serving as president of the University of Alaska, and look toward the days and years ahead, I see three important realities:

• The university — like our state — faces very serious organizational and budget challenges that we must confront head on;

• Our vision and the tough choices we make for moving the university forward must be clear and focus on meeting the state’s short- and long-term needs;

• We will emerge an even stronger university serving an even stronger state.

The first two challenges are integrally linked. The university is rigorously reviewing programs to identify efficiencies and cost-saving measures that can be implemented in the near term.

For starters, we have established a common calendar so that all three universities operate on the same semester dates and vacation schedules. We are aligning general education requirements across the system and increasing cohesion and student access.

Many more changes will follow soon as we strengthen those programs that: address our state’s future needs; grow a trained workforce; develop our economy and provide a viable future for our well-educated and involved graduates.

The single most important part of our mission for the state is providing education to students. But education must go beyond facts. UA must foster critical thinking, prepare students to be good citizens of our state and impart skills that prepare them for success after they walk across the graduation stage and into the world.

Another major challenge we face — like many other universities — is the need to make sure our incoming students, whether fresh out of high school or returning to college, are ready to take college level classes. By some estimates, 60 percent of our students require developmental education before they can succeed at the college level. That is expensive for students and for UA. We will continue to work with K-12 and continually examine our approach to this issue.

It’s been said that there is no great state without a great university. Alaska’s territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress, Judge James Wickersham, understood that very well when, in 1915, he dedicated the cornerstone on College Hill in Fairbanks for what has become the University of Alaska. The territorial legislature understood that when it held Alaska’s constitutional convention at the University of Alaska and established it in the constitution. And just last year, Gov. Bill Walker made it clear that he understood it when he convened an important conference on the state’s fiscal future at the university.

The university’s strength flows from its world-class research, industry standard workforce development and award winning liberal arts programs. The University of Alaska is a world leader in Arctic research – well ahead of Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley. Our researchers and their students have developed a deep understanding of what is happening in the north and how we can best adapt to those changes. With a world-class rocket range and ocean going research vessel, satellite tracking facilities, long term environmental research bases and high-end supercomputing capabilities, the University of Alaska provides high quality, objective measurement of change in the north and shares that knowledge with policy makers and scientists across the world.

In the 100 years since Judge Wickersham laid the cornerstone in Fairbanks, we have grown from producing a single graduate each year to conferring nearly 5,000 degrees, certificates and endorsements in 2015.

Our students are on the forefront of a changing world. They are leaders in undergraduate research, making breakthroughs in engineering, marine sciences, indigenous knowledge-based education, health research and resource extraction techniques. As highly skilled nurses, maritime operators and process technicians, they are the future of Alaska’s workforce.

Our fundraising is active and will become even more so in the months ahead as donations continue to increase. Our alumni are some of the most impressive and astute leaders in the state — from government leaders to Native corporation executives to journalists, artists and educators.

We have grown from a mere concrete cornerstone to three universities — one each in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau — and 13 community campuses across the state serving more than 45,000 students, from Ketchikan in Southeast to Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska.

While we are mindful of the serious budget challenges at our doorstep, we are optimistic about Alaska’s future. We can and must make the tough choices together, address challenges together and create opportunity for all Alaskans together.

Strength comes from collaboration. As Alaskans, we are long accustomed to facing challenges and working hard together to overcome them. We will make the tough choices about our structure, course offerings and cost effective operation. Those decisions will include reallocating resources — finances, facilities, people and programs — to bring the unique strengths of our universities to bear on the highest priority needs of our state.

I am confident that together with our Board of Regents, legislators, faculty, staff, students, alumni, employers, contractors and donors, we will do our best for the university, because it is as true today as it ever was that there is no great state of Alaska without a great University of Alaska.

• Jim Johnsen is the president of the University of Alaska. This piece mirrors a “State of the University” talk he gave in Fairbanks on Jan. 12.

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