Higher Education 101: Jim Johnsen lays out his plans as the new University of Alaska president

As the new president of the University of Alaska, Jim Johnsen said his plans include streamlining administrative services, graduating more teachers and using university expertise to serve the state -- all in the face of an ongoing fiscal crunch.

Johnsen, a former UA vice president, took the helm of the university system Sept. 1. His new job caps a resume that includes positions with universities, the state government, a labor union, an Alaska Native corporation and, most recently, Alaska Communications. For more than two decades, Johnsen also taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast. Education, he said, has long been his passion.

Johnsen earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1982, a master's degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

He landed in Alaska during the summer of 1983, he said, "on the back of the M/V Matanuska with no sleeping bag and no tent." He was visiting his girlfriend (now wife) who had moved to Juneau. "It's a typical Alaska story: come up for the summer and stay for 32 years."

Johnsen, now 58, lives in Fairbanks with his wife, Mary, and three dogs. The couple have a 30-year-old daughter, Greta, and a 27-year-old son, Jakob.

Johnsen was named the new president in July, replacing Pat Gamble. Johnsen's five-year contract includes an annual salary of $325,000 and an annual performance bonus of up to $75,000. Last month, he sat down with Alaska Dispatch News to discuss his priorities as president and how he will tackle budget issues as the university system plans for another tight fiscal year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


ADN: What does the UA system look like from your perspective at this point? What are the challenges and how will you address those?

Johnsen: It is a fantastic system. We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of, originally, the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines.

So fast-forward 100 years and we're now 16 campuses. I think there's 17 cooperative extension locations across the state, 33,000 students, over 8,000 faculty and staff. We lead the world in citations regarding Arctic research. We train teachers. We train nurses. We train engineers.

So it's a fantastic institution. It has tremendous strengths. It also has some serious challenges.

We rely for 45 percent of our revenue on the state Legislature and, of course, that revenue source is in trouble, given low oil prices and gradually declining productivity. That's a challenge for us, so we've really got to try to diversify our revenue sources as much as we possibly can.

At the same time, we've got to grow where we're strong. The idea that we're going to just sort of hunker down and take incremental cuts is, I think, irresponsible. There are so many strong programs at the university linked up with powerful and compelling needs of the state. Health care workforce. Teachers. ... We've got to double down on that. We're producing something like only 25 percent of the teachers hired each year. We've got to really step that up.

ADN: You touched on needing to diversify UA's revenue sources. How do you plan to do that?

Johnsen: We'll certainly continue to press our case in Juneau.

We'll be stepping up our private fundraising, also. That's something that we do well with corporations in Alaska. We feel we've got a real opportunity to step up fundraising with our alumni, as our universities -- they're young.

On the federal side, even though federal research spending is constrained, we will continue to make our case back in D.C. as well. We are America's Arctic state and to the extent that we play a role in what's happening in the north and in the Arctic for the next 20, 30, 50 years, we believe we need to be on point. So we'll be making our case back in Washington, as well, for increased research support.

Commercialization of our research -- that's something that has been a priority for about five or six years, I'd say, and it's started to get a little traction. ... So as that happens, as those firms hire students and then hire us to do research for them, then you end up generating revenue that way, too.

ADN: What are you anticipating as far as the magnitude of a budget cut for the next fiscal year and where do you anticipate cutting?

Johnsen: I would estimate 4 to 5 percent. We don't see things brightening up.

In terms of where we're going to cut, great question. We're going through an exercise right now. There will certainly be reductions in the statewide administration, so we're looking hard at that at this point. The campuses themselves -- they've gone through prioritization processes on the campuses, so they'll be looking at programs that are in low demand. There's various criteria that we use, but one of them, primarily, is low demand. So, if there's low demand for a program that doesn't have a big work-force priority, for example, or has low enrollments or doesn't have a strong research program -- those sorts of things -- those things are going to be on the block, frankly.

ADN: You've said you "will work with the university's many stakeholders to expand access and affordability, drive cost effectiveness and promote academic excellence in everything we do." Can you explain how you plan to expand access and affordability?

Johnsen: Well, one is technology and we need greater broadband connectivity to rural places, in particular, but here in the big cities as well.

Another is degree completion. Alaska ranks among the top states in the country in percentage of our population that has some college, but haven't completed (their degrees). That seems, to me, a huge opportunity for us -- to get in there and again, using technology, using assessment of those people's experiences, giving them credit for that experience and finishing them off and helping them be successful.


The affordability, I think, is there. The challenge with affordability is not when people finish and go out and get a job, it's when they don't finish. And right now, across our system, our six-year graduation rate is under half. So they're taking out loans. I mean, yes, our fees are relatively low. Our tuition is relatively low. But they're taking out loans and then they don't have the job that they went to school for and that troubles me a lot.

Cost effectiveness, as well, I think we've got to look hard at redundant programs and where we have multiple programs at different cities -- that may be fine, they may be meeting demand, they may be cost-effective. But in some cases, they may not be.

ADN: In February, the Board of Regents approved the 5 percent tuition hike. Is that something you would have supported? And do you expect tuition to increase in the next few years?

Johnsen: I expect it to, yes. We are going to meet with students over the next few months to work with them on tuition starting next year. Again, as I said, our university-level tuition is comparatively low. Actually, our community college level tuition is comparably high. And so that's something we have to be careful of and I'm going to be looking with great interest at how we can differentiate tuition.

So, for example, if there's a high-demand program -- so there are loads of students in it and when they complete it they're getting high-paid jobs -- and our tuition is under-market, I think it's reasonable to increase tuition in that program. So I think you can expect to see, and students can expect to see, a real focus on what we call differential tuition going forward. Again, we're going to be very careful about it. We'll look at it in terms of demand and then what opportunities students have when they get out.

But in programs that, again, are relatively low enrollments and aren't going to get super pay when they get out -- I will keep tuition at reasonable levels there. I mean, all of our tuition is reasonable. But yes, tuition has got to be on the table, no question about it.

ADN: Given that you're going to look at differential tuition, would you have voted for the 5 percent increase across the board?

Johnsen: Well, I don't have a vote, but I would have supported it and made that recommendation.


ADN: So moving forward, tuition increases are on the table as far as planning for next year's budget goes. But when planning for this fiscal year, we've seen the hubs come out with program cuts and staff cuts. UA President Pat Gamble came out with the furlough plan. Do you anticipate any of those methods -- furloughs, program cuts, staff cuts -- coming up during budget talks? Is there anything you want to hold harmless?

Johnsen: All of those will be on the table. The things that, for me, need to be held harmless are -- we start with the core and that's research, teaching and outreach. That is the core.

We're going to have to look at academic programs, no question about that. UAA has looked at some. So has Fairbanks and Juneau. … The idea is to maintain. Indeed, to strengthen the unique qualities of each one of our universities even though we're in this tight time. So, again: teacher education, engineering, nursing. The liberal arts are critically important.

ADN: What are your three top priorities as UA president?

Johnsen: I'll give you two answers. The one answer is sort of the almost generic and it goes back to the three legs of the stool: cost-effectiveness -- we've just got to drive it. It's one of our critical priorities. Access -- whenever we have the opportunity to expand access, we expand access. And third, is quality. We can't compromise quality. We've got to invest in quality because that's why students will come here. It's really all three of those. I would hope that students say, "Wow, it's cost effective. It's right here, I've got access and man, is it good."

When you want to get specific, however, we've got to streamline processes and reduce costs, so that we can invest in our academic priorities. So sort of administrative streamlining -- critical. It falls under the cost-effectiveness line. Teacher education, teacher education, teacher education -- it's just critical for us. ... And then I'd say right off the top -- very important -- is how do we support the state? How do we support the state making very difficult decisions? That's where ISER (UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research) falls in and providing our researchers to the state government. But we have to free up their time to do that. They have to be paid to do that. So that's going to take some resources from us and perhaps from the state.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.