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The University of Alaska is facing big issues. It shouldn’t add to them.

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 20
  • Published June 20

FILE - In this July 30, 2019, file photo, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen speaks at a UA Board of Regents meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Dan Joling, File)

A week ago, word circulated of a petition put forward by the University of Alaska’s faculty union once again decrying the direction of the institution under President Jim Johnsen and the board of regents, and calling for Johnsen’s resignation. If that induces a little deja vu, there’s a reason: The faculty senates of both the University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Fairbanks passed resolutions of no confidence in Johnsen in 2017, then UAA faculty did so again in 2019. This year’s version has a couple of new wrinkles — admonishments for applying to be the president of the University of Wisconsin and an insufficient focus on promoting diversity — but the basics are the same: Johnsen “has presided over a disastrous decline in state funding to the university system.”

There are a laundry list of other conjured failings, according to the faculty group, such as faculty and staff turnover, declining enrollment, low morale and even the nebulous “many other failures of leadership that are too many to mention.”

It’s absolutely true that those should be serious concerns for the university. But laying culpability for them at Johnsen’s feet is a childish blame game, and faculty members should know better. Although there are a variety of contributing factors to the university’s woes, from increased student debt loads to the state’s flagging economy to COVID-19, there’s one big one: Persistent state funding cutbacks that have dogged the institution for Johnsen’s entire tenure and accelerated since 2018. As Alaska’s fiscal situation has grown from concerning to dire, so it has at the university, and the faculty has wrongly chosen Johnson as the focus of its anger.

Blaming Johnsen for that loss of funding isn’t honest, and acting as though there has been some way for the university to avoid the same drastic paring-back affecting other state services is wishful thinking at best — a convenient evasion of the economic reality. In their haste to assign blame for the university’s woes, faculty groups have engaged in the kind of circular-firing-squad behavior that those hoping to defund the institution love to see.

It’s a bit rich that the latest petition decries Johnsen’s selection as a finalist to lead the University of Wisconsin — he has declined — as a betrayal of the University of Alaska, given that the same groups had twice told him in no uncertain terms that they wanted him gone. And although our tendency as Alaskans is to declare that anyone with one eye cast toward the Lower 48 may as well leave now, the fact of the matter is that Jim Johnsen is uniquely qualified to lead the University of Alaska during one of its most difficult times. He knows the university’s systems, he’s looked harder at its funding than anyone else and, as an Alaskan, he understands the importance the university has to our state and our communities — more so, as a matter of fact, than many of the faculty members seeking his ouster. Postsecondary education is quickly evolving worldwide, to say nothing of its current challenges in Alaska, and Jim Johnsen is the right person to shepherd the UA system into its next phase.

That’s not to say that Johnsen’s actions are beyond debate, or that he always chooses the right course of action. His letter to chancellors in 2019 seeking to brook any dissent with his reorganization plans was inadvisable, and data is mixed on the benefits of his proposed consolidation plan that the board of regents shied away from late last year. But he has consistently been the adult in the room, trying to lead intransigent governance groups and the regents themselves to a reality all too clear to those on the outside of the university looking in: The $70 million in cuts the university is in the middle of making over a three-year period can’t be achieved without big, painful changes to all of the institution’s campuses.

When the regents opted against consolidation, they handed the cost-cutting reins to the chancellors of UAA, UAF and the University of Alaska Southeast — the approach that faculty groups said they favored when they spoke to accreditors for the system. Now those campus-level cuts have been determined and passed by the regents, cutting more than 40 programs, and somehow Johnsen is being blamed for those too — as well as the fact that it may not ultimately be possible to continue that level of cutting for another year, putting UAS in danger of absorption into the Fairbanks or Anchorage campus. Faculty groups’ rallying cry has been that administration must be reduced, and it must. But the same groups also opposed Johnsen’s consolidation plan, which would have done just that.

The University of Alaska, like the state as a whole, is in the midst of a deep, painful economic pullback, and there’s no escaping cuts that will reshape it — and not for the better. We will lose important university programs — we already are — not because they aren’t valued but because it’s not possible to keep everything. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise isn’t being honest. Jim Johnsen isn’t sugarcoating that picture for faculty, regents or the Alaska public. And for that, he deserves recognition, not the third call to resign his position in the past four years. Jim Johnsen remains the right man to lead our university.