UA faculty union calls for Johnsen’s resignation after foray with Wisconsin

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 announced on Friday that he would be withdrawing from  consideration for the top job with the University of Wisconsin and would stay with Alaska, but that’s not been welcome news for many of the University of Alaska faculty.

The executive board of United Academics AAUP/AFT Local 4996, the largest union representing UA faculty around the state, on Friday issued a call for Johnsen’s resignation and created an online petition to generate support in his removal. The petition is critical of Johnsen’s handling of the system’s financial woes, his decision to seek the job at Wisconsin and an interview he gave while going through the process with Wisconsin.

During that interview, Johnsen credited Wisconsinites for being willing to support their university in comparison to Alaska and made comments about diversity that have landed with a thud.

“I love the fact that Wisconsinites chip in,” he said. “Now, they may all agree with how much tax they pay but coming from a state where individuals pay no taxes and expect a handout each year from our permanent fund, I think actually Wisconsinites have taken much more personal and collective responsibility for their state

Abel Bult-Ito, the president of United Academics AAUP/AFT, said Johnsen’s answers and track record don’t sit well as Johnsen plans to continue as the head of the University of Alaska.

“Telling us that we receive handouts was not appreciated and made us feel thrown under the bus,” Bult-Ito said in an email today. “His comments about diversity also showed his cluelessness as to what it means to have white male privilege. He has done little to nothing regarding increasing diversity at UA these past 5 years.”

The frayed relationship between Johnsen, a former contract negotiator for the university, have been pushed to the brink in recent years. Both UAA and UAF faculty cast no confidence votes against Johnsen in 2017, and UAA cast a second no-confidence vote last year amid Johnsen’s push to consolidate the University of Alaska system under one accreditation.

Much of the strain, though, has been generated by several years of cuts in state funding that have accelerated under Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who initially proposed an extremely deep cut to UA funding before agreeing to spread the cuts out over several years. Bult-Ito acknowledged the challenging situation facing Johnsen but said it’s his job to handle those challenges.

“We absolutely need change in the Governor’s Office and broad support for the university in the Legislature. There is no doubt about that. However, the president’s most important responsibility is getting sufficient funds for the university to operate. He has failed in this regard and he should take responsibility for that,” he said.

“When we talk about funding, we also have to talk about how the funds are spent,” he said, arguing that the University of Alaska system is overly top heavy with administrators. “President Johnsen has refused to address this waste of state- and student-provided funds. By addressing this administrative waste most of the budgetary issues at the university could be resolved without cutting successful academic programs.”

Johnsen’s fate with the University of Alaska will ultimately rest with him and the UA Board of Regents, which is scheduled to meet Tuesday for a meeting that was planned before the union’s calls and before Johnsen decided to withdraw his name from consideration at the University of Wisconsin.

Why it matters

Last year’s efforts to consolidate the University of Alaska’s campuses into one system was met with tremendous pushback from faculty and students, who felt that they weren’t being adequately heard in the discussions. Those concerns eventually reached the national accreditation agency, which called on the university to more actively involve those groups.

Whether or not that will come to pass will be seen in the latest cost-cutting effort before the University of Alaska system with the plan to begin exploring folding the University of Alaska Southeast into the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The plan approved by regents at the start of the month calls for students, faculty and other stakeholders to have a more direct hand in the process ahead.

Whether that’s enough to patch over burnt bridges has yet to be seen.

The petition

United Academics AAUP/AFT Local 4996:
Call for the Resignation of the University of Alaska President

  • The following petition was unanimously approved for public review and endorsement by the United Academics Executive Board on Friday 12 June 2020.
  • Please be aware that, if you choose to sign the petition, your name will not be disclosed. Only aggregate data, such as general affiliation information, may be released.
  • Anyone may endorse this petition by providing the requested information below so feel free to share this link with others who have an interest in university matters.

We, the undersigned, call for the immediate resignation of the University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen for the following reasons:

1. Jim Johnsen has failed in all areas that matter to the academic mission of the university system. He has presided over a disastrous decline in state funding to the university system, continuous declines in enrollment, drastically sinking employee morale, alarming increases in faculty and staff turnover, the loss of specialized accreditation of initial licensure education programs at UAA, the short-sighted elimination of critical and healthy academic programs affecting many stakeholders, a decrease in University of Alaska credit rating, and many other failures of leadership that are too many to mention here.

2. By seeking a leadership position elsewhere during this time of extreme distress while the university system is suffering an existential crisis and our students, faculty, staff, and the Alaska community at large yearn for exceptional, transformative, and long-term strategic leadership, Jim Johnsen has demonstrated that he is more willing to invest his efforts in advancing his own career than in leading the university system through these difficult times.

3. In Jim Johnsen’s recent interviews with the University of Wisconsin, he was unable to provide adequate examples of what he has done to promote diversity, despite working for much of his career in leadership positions in a state where these issues are important, pertinent, and desperately need to be addressed.

While each item listed above is of major concern when considered individually, all three taken together lead to the inescapable conclusion that the immediate resignation of Jim Johnsen is essential. It is clear that new leadership is needed for the University of Alaska System.

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