Legislators commend Johnsen for his time at UA: ‘He was saddled with the impossible task’

Something might be going on in there.The Alaska State Capitol building as photographed in 2010. (Photo by Kimberly Vardeman/Creative Commons)

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen announced his resignation on Monday amid diminished support from within the university system, but as he steps aside, he still has some fans: State legislators.

Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate both released statements thanking Johnsen for his time at the university and some argued that the vitriol targeting Johnsen, who led the university since 2015, was misplaced.

The University of Alaska has seen cuts to its state funding nearly every year since Johnsen took over as state revenue dwindled under declining oil prices. Funding took an even bigger hit with the election of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who’s used his veto to cut funding below what the Legislature has approved.

“He was saddled with the impossible task of managing a university system facing a 44 percent cut in state funding,” said House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, in a prepared statement referring to Dunleavy’s proposed $134 million cut last year. “I thank Jim for his service to the University and state of Alaska.”

“President Johnsen has led the University of Alaska during the most tumultuous times it has experienced,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. “He accomplished all that was asked of him with dignity, courage, inclusiveness and honor. … The problems he faced were not of his own making but a result of draconian cuts to the budget and the COVID-19 crises. President Johnsen has much to offer and will continue to be a leader in higher education for many years to come.”

Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, was more blunt in his assessment of the situation facing the University of Alaska, taking a shot at the infighting that has underscored the budget woes (during the worst of the budget woes last year, UAA faculty suggested the budget woes could be solved by simply cutting UAF).

“I think the negative focus on Jim Johnson was misguided. He has been dealt a tough hand since he arrived at UA, especially the past two years, and has tried to implement the needed changes. I feel that more funding certainly would’ve helped but the entire higher education industry is going through massive changes and we need to keep that in mind going forward. The University is so important to our state and to our local communities that we need to make sure what is done is best for everyone and we must also work to keep regional divisions out of the equation.”

Frustration with infighting between the campuses isn’t unique to the Legislature, but several members of the Board of Regents have expressed a similar sentiment and worried that it’s leading to indecision as the system’s financial woes continue to mount. The Board of Regents is currently undergoing a process to explore folding the University of Alaska Southeast into the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has recently voted to delete several dozen academic programs.

Why it matters

There’s nothing bringing Johnsen back at this point, but the comments show the Legislature’s patience is starting to wear thin with the University of Alaska and its slow-moving process of adapting to changes. Though the decisions about how to run the university are made by the Board of Regents, funding is decided by the Alaska Legislature and governor and a lack of tangible progress to adapt to the changes could put a damper on what enthusiasm for the university there is.

Things aren’t likely to improve on the state budget front any time soon, and could get far worse as the state’s financial outlook—tied so heavily to oil and the performance of its investments through the Alaska Permanent Fund—have taken another hit with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The process ahead with the University of Alaska Southeast has the potential to allay some of those concerns with Legislatures. It’s also an opportunity for university leadership to mend distrust between the local campuses and the Board of Regents and statewide system.

All of that is yet to be seen.

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