University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen picked as lone finalist for top job at Wisconsin system

UA President Jim Johnsen speaks to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen could soon make his departure from the top post at Alaska’s university system.

He’s been named the lone finalist to for the University of Wisconsin System’s president and, though the official hiring process could take weeks, Johnsen told the Commonwealth North’s board of directors in an email Monday he’s likely to accept the position. He confirmed the news in a statement to the university community this morning.

“I wasn’t looking for another job when I was nominated for this one, but the position aligns with my experience and skills as a university leader,” he said. “The opportunity to lead a larger university is an exciting prospect, and Madison is in very close proximity to our family. I want you to know that next week I will be in final discussions with the presidential search committee and the university community, and the outcome of those discussions is expected by mid-June.”

The University of Wisconsin formally announced the decision this morning, noting that the interview for the job is on June 9.

“The committee unanimously agreed on a first choice of finalist in Dr. Jim Johnsen as a strong, qualified, collaborative leader who would be an excellent choice as the next president of the UW System,” said UW  Regent Vice President Michael M. Grebe, chair of the Presidential Search Committee, in a prepared statement.

The departure comes at a critical time for the University of Alaska, which is grappling not only with another year of cuts to state funding but also the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that have increased costs and driven down enrollment. The UA Board of Regents are set to meet later this week to consider the elimination of dozens of academic programs as well as a potential plan to fold the University of Alaska Southeast into either the Fairbanks or Anchorage universities.

Since taking the helm of the University of Alaska in July 2015, Johnsen has largely been known for spearheading the efforts to reshape the university in response to dwindling state revenue. His most high-profile effort was an attempt to consolidate the system’s three universities under a single accreditation during the worst of last year’s budget turmoil. He argued it would allow each campus to focus on its strengths while reducing duplication across the three campuses.

That plan was ultimately shelved by the Board of Regents amid concerns that a hasty process could imperil the system’s academic accreditation as well as backlash from the university community and by the signing of compact between the university and Gov. Mike Dunleavy to limit the cuts over several years. Johnsen told reporters last week that he was concerned that compact may no longer stand with the dire turn the state’s finances took amid the pandemic.

The consolidation of UAS has similarly been met with backlash from UAS faculty, students and the Juneau community. At a roundtable discussion on Monday night, the group criticized the plans to fold UAS into another university as a hasty, ill-planned attempt to cut costs.

The replacement process will be left up to the Board of Regents. No interim replacement has been named at this time.

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2 Comments on "University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen picked as lone finalist for top job at Wisconsin system"

  1. It isn’t exactly accurate to say that the Board pulled out of the consolidation plan to one university due to “backlash from the university community and by the signing of compact between the university and Gov. Mike Dunleavy”. In fact, the university was told that combining three universities into one is not a simple process and it would take years. In fact, other systems that have consolidated have had mixed results. Connecticut universities lost their accreditation in the effort and consolidation of Georgia universities only saved 1%. What really stopped the idea of one university was a somewhat threatening letter from the president of the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), which is the organization through which UAF, UAA, and UAS are accredited, stating that the roles & responsibilities of the Chancellors and president were unclear and that there were issues with the NWCCU-required shared governance at the university. It was that letter, and not the compact, that made the Board put on the brakes. By the way, UA is not accredited. It is not a university, it is just an administrative unit.

    • Hi Julie, Thanks that is certainly some much-needed context to the situation. The accreditation concerns carried far more weight than I gave it credit for in that piece. And thanks for the references to the other systems where consolidation has been a mixed bag, I’ll definitely do more research on that. -Matt

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