Breaking: Besieged University of Alaska President Johnsen has resigned

This is a developing story and was last updated at 2 p.m.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen has resigned.

Johnsen, who served as UA’s president for the last five years, faced mounting pressure to step aside as the system’s financial woes worsened. The pressure grew to a fever pitch when Johnsen was named the lone finalist for the top job at the University of Wisconsin, which he ultimately declined amid pushback in both Wisconsin and Alaska.

The university’s largest faculty union, United Academics AAUP/AFT, officially called for Johnsen’s resignation last week, saying Johnsen had failed to steer the university through tens millions of dollars in cuts handed down by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Alaska Legislature.

“It has been a real challenge leading the university over the last five years, but we made a lot of progress, too. Looking forward, there is no institution more important for creating opportunities for Alaskans than the university,” Johnsen said in a prepared statement.

Johnsen’s resignation, which was formally announced in a letter from UA Board of Regents Chair Sherri Buretta today, will be effective July 1.

“While we understand that a change in leadership can be unsettling, we are confident this decision, though difficult, is the correct one for the university,” Buretta wrote. “We ask that all of you throughout the university community recognize that the state and university’s current fiscal situation requires significant change, and that to thrive, UA must come together to address our significant challenges. We must move forward and work together to address these challenges.”

Michelle Rizk, the vice president of University Relations and Chief Strategy, Planning and Budget Officer, has been tapped to serve as the acting president. Rizk has worked with the University of Alaska for more than two decades and has been a consistent and trusted face for the university in the Alaska Legislature.

“During her 22-year UA career, Michelle has served the university in areas including finance, human resources, and as the university’s chief advocate in Juneau. Raised in Alaska, Rizk earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Alaska Fairbanks,” Buretta said.

The letter says the Board of Regents plans to appoint an interim president “after consulting with the chancellors, governance leaders and other UA stakeholders” by July 15. A more formal search for a replacement will be launched later this year.

The University of Alaska system has faced several years of precipitous decline in state funding and faced the grim possibility of financial exigency (effectively bankruptcy) last year. Johnsen pushed to unite the University of Alaska’s three campuses under a single accreditation, alienating university faculty that were already skeptical of his leadership.

While that plan was ultimately tabled, the UA Board of Regents recently launched a team to investigate the possibility of folding the University of Alaska Southeast into the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“I wish all the best to Jim Johnsen and look forward to working with Michelle Rizk,” said Abel Bult-Ito, the president of United Academics AAUP/AFT.

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