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University of Alaska 'strong' despite challenges, president says

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published February 16, 2017

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen speaks at an education forum in December. (Loren Holmes / ADN file)

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen described the state of the university as "strong" in a speech Thursday, despite declining enrollment, dwindling state funding and difficulties in retaining "superstar researchers" in a competitive market.

"Despite the many challenges that we face, it's critical that we keep our eyes on what we can be and what we must be and the assets we have," Johnsen said during his 2017 State of the University address delivered in Juneau Thursday afternoon.

Johnsen expressed optimism about UA's future in Alaska throughout his 40-minute speech.

The reasons for his confidence, he said, included strong leadership from the UA Board of Regents, the university's commitment to meet the state's changing workforce and the Strategic Pathways restructuring process, which he said was designed to help UA increase its performance with less money from the state.

"It's not perfect, but it's making progress," he said of the ongoing initiative that has drawn criticism from faculty.

Johnsen acknowledged UA is "absolutely challenged" by its budget situation and repeated cuts to state funding totaling about 14 percent, or $52.7 million, over the past three years. The funding cuts have led to the elimination of 923 university positions.

About 10 percent of UA's degree and certificate programs have been deleted or suspended. Statewide administration positions were reduced by 29 percent, Johnsen said.

While Gov. Bill Walker's proposed budget for the next fiscal year included no cuts to UA state general funds, Johnsen said "word on the Hill" — the Capitol — was UA may face another 5 percent cut, or $16 million, once the Legislature passes a budget.

That would equate to the loss of another 160 to 200 additional jobs, Johnsen said.

"We acknowledge the state's fiscal situation, and we'll be part of the solution. We have been before, we will be today," Johnsen said. "But at the same time Alaskans need to know that there is a serious price to pay for these reductions and our ability to serve the people and the economy — and most importantly our future."

The UA budget remained in Senate and House finance subcommittees Thursday afternoon.

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, chair of the House finance subcommittee for UA, said in an interview Thursday he viewed the university as a way to help the economy by supplying jobs and producing graduates.

"It's not my intent to cut the university's budget any more than it already has been," he said.

Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, chair of the Senate finance subcommittee for UA, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Johnsen said in his Thursday speech the university's long-term commitments included providing a safe learning environment, graduating more students with teaching degrees and just plain graduating more students.

By 2025, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimates 65 percent of jobs in the state will require education or training beyond high school. The latest statistics, from 2011, showed 37 percent of Alaskans between age 25 and 64 had an associate degree or higher.

"There's huge unmet needs for higher education in the state," Johnsen said.

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