UA President Jim Johnsen faces pushback from Wisconsin professors

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 hasn’t made a lot of friends with university faculty as he’s guided the system through millions of dollars in budget cuts with program eliminations, restructurings and dozens of other cost-cutting measures.

Both the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Anchorage faculty senates cast no confidence votes to Johnsen in 2017, and UAA reaffirmed that vote during the heat of last year’s efforts to consolidate the university under a single system.

Those votes are now fueling an effort in the University of Wisconsin System, where Johnsen was last week named the sole finalist to take over as president, to restart the search and find new candidates. The American Association of University Professors Wisconsin called Johnsen’s selection “the failed result of a flawed search process that excluded faculty, staff and student representatives from the beginning.”

As for Johnsen being the lone finalist, the University of Wisconsin System announcement says “several candidates removed their names from consideration near the end of the process, with some expressing concern over being named publicly as a finalist during the pandemic.”

University of Wisconsin Regent Michael Grebe, the chairman of the search committee, has defended the process, saying that despite the other candidates dropping out “Jim was the clear favorite at that point.”

Johnsen is expected this week to undergo interviews with the University of Wisconsin, which like the University of Alaska is grappling with significant budget problems and is considering a massive, largely unpopular restructuring. 

In an interview with KINY’s News of the North the Dr. Nicolas Fleisher, a member of the AAUP-W group, said the no confidence votes are concerning but the underlying problem has been with the University of Wisconsin’s search process.

“We started to learn a bit more about Jim Johnsen and his record in Alaska. In particular, the history of no-confidence votes … that’s a major red flag,” he told the radio station. “We’ve been critical of the search process from the beginning. This search process is the first time in history that the faculty, staff, and students have been excluded from the process. However, it’s consistent with the sidelining of faculty and staff and students in shared governance over the past several years.”

And PROFS, a non-union advocacy group for UW-Madison faculty, released a similar statement critical of Johnsen’s time at the University of Alaska.

“During his time as President of the University of Alaska System, Jim Johnsen presided over devastating budget cuts imposed by the governor and an abortive drive to consolidate the system’s institutions, and was the subject of multiple votes of no confidence by Faculty Senates at the University of Alaska’s constituent campuses,” the group wrote. “He admitted to his role in contributing to a ‘fractured’ university system, and there have been concerns expressed about his willingness to engage with faculty as part of the shared governance process. These facts are concerning.”

Johnsen made the comments in a video address last fall, acknowledging that he had been operating under a “crisis mode” due to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s massive veto to state funding for the university system. That cut was eased through a negotiated agreement between the UA Board of Regents and Dunleavy and the plan to consolidate the university under a single accreditation was shelved.

“While that was a hard thing to do while facing that big budget ax, after the agreement there was an opportunity to reach out and involve more people,” Johnsen said. “No one person, including me, has all the answers. And again, while we are under pressure, often leaders do step up and come up with approaches and plans to deal with challenges and crises.”

Nine months later, though, and the University of Alaska system still remains divided over how to handle its budget woes, including new strains from the COVID-19 pandemic that has created new costs and pushed down enrollment.

Last week, the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents launched a process to explore potentially folding the University of Alaska Southeast into the University of Alaska Fairbanks and voted to eliminate 35 academic programs. However, compared to years past, Johnsen took less of a proactive role in advocating for a particular course of action and pushed for the Board of Regents to be more actively engaged in making these decisions.

Educating Alaska’s Future, an advocacy group, has been critical of the process and plans to hold a virtual townhall with students on Thursday to talk about the program reductions. In a statement, the group questioned the priorities of the UA Board of Regents.

“The Board of Regents and the chancellors at UAF and UAA put administrators, rather than students, first. They could have cut the abundance of highly paid administrators across the university system,” the group wrote. “Instead, the Board of Regents opted to cut programs that serve students and the community. The question for the community is, how can we work toward a University of Alaska that puts students first? One that offers an affordable and high-quality education to all Alaska students?”

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