Building community, contribution and care as we deal with COVID-19

The University of Alaska has demonstrated resilience and resolve over many years and across many challenging issues. Alaskans support the university in helping our students, employing our graduates, providing generous contributions, and offering their time and expertise on advisory and governing boards. This partnership with our state is highlighted by how the university is giving back to help our communities and our state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I continue to be impressed by how our faculty, students and staff collaborate, support one another and conduct innovative and meaningful work. I am proud to be a part of a university system that serves our communities and our state as we work daily to build a stronger, more resilient Alaska. I believe it is UA’s responsibility to examine both current and far-reaching impacts of the current crisis and to help identify solutions.

Our microbiologists are working closely with the state virology lab to assist in processing COVID-19 tests. Our epidemiologists and economists are mapping the outbreak, modeling the post-COVID economy — including the economic impacts over time across various economic sectors — and providing recommendations for economic recovery.

Our universities and community campuses have donated thousands of face masks, isolation gowns, face shields, head caps, goggles and shoe covers to the state or to local health care providers. We are also providing 3-D printing services for personal protective equipment to assist with the response.

The UAA College of Health is working with the Alaska Board of Nursing to certify and graduate our senior nursing students early so that they can join the health care workforce now to help respond to the pandemic. The federally-funded Small Business Development Center at UAA has consulted with more than 200 small businesses in the state on strategies to mitigate financial losses due to business closures.

We now have in place agreements with municipalities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau to make our larger facilities available to health care providers to house COVID-19 patients and health care workers. At UAF, a team is making hand sanitizer for medical facilities and collaborating on a novel portable UV-sanitization system designed to increase the ability to re-use respirators.

In addition to serving our community, we are taking care of our own students, faculty and staff. We acted early to contain the novel coronavirus. We implemented distance learning for our students and shifted to work-from-home, restricted travel to countries on the Centers for Disease Control Level 3 and 4 list, closed buildings on our campuses, worked with our telecommunication partners to provide free, faster broadband services for students and employees, and set up a relief fund to help students meet basic needs.


We are supporting training for K-12 teachers in on-line education, working to find alternative ways to celebrate our graduating classes and planning now for how best to deliver fall classes.

All of this underscores the values that bind us together — grit, resolve, compassion, service — and it means we are here for all Alaskans and for each other.

Even as we work through these dark hours, we continue to model what our university will look like after this pandemic has passed, and to ensure that we continue to provide high-quality, meaningful education for Alaskans. We are looking at what will happen with our fall semester, five years out, and 20 years from now to ensure that we deliver what Alaskans need for the jobs of the future.

COVID-19 and the global response will, without a doubt, change our lives, our needs, our economies and our educational systems. How do we evaluate the jobs our economy will need? How will we adapt and get out in front of those needs and account for these changing conditions?

We are adapting and learning along the way, and while there are many unknowns to be decoded and understood, we know that the University of Alaska will always be a partner in leading our state with strength and a deep commitment to Alaska’s future.

Jim Johnsen is the president of the University of Alaska.

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