Tough choices loom: Johnsen hosts strategic pathways forum
On the anniversary of start of his presidency, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen once again took the stage to discuss Strategic Pathways and the future of the UA system as a whole at a public forum held on Thursday, Sept 1 in the Wood Center Ballroom.
Students, staff, faculty and community members gathered en masse to hear potential updates on the progress of a plan to address the university and state’s substantial budgetary issues, a plan which caused significant outcry upon its original announcement in the spring semester of 2016.
The forum began with an introduction of President Johnsen provided by recently appointed Interim Chancellor Dana Thomas.
Thomas emphasized the importance of gathering public feedback and input in the process of trimming down state and university spending to match a limited budget.
“Jim’s passion for both higher education and economic opportunity is illustrated by his long history of service in both of those areas,” Thomas said.
Following Chancellor Thomas’ introduction, President Johnsen provided his thoughts and concerns about the university, as well aspects of the state, university and high education he finds to be most important.
In his remarks, Johnsen placed key focus on the complicated relationship between three central factors; the great opportunities provided by the University of Alaska and the state, the significant and yet continuously unmet needs for higher education in Alaska and the ongoing budget cuts being handed down by the legislature.
Johnsen advised to batten down the hatches as the university took a 14 percent budget cut in the 2016 fiscal year, the third year of cuts in a row, with notice from the governor’s office of another potential 10 percent reduction within the next year.
Based on recent rates of high school and college drop outs, students leaving Alaska to attend college elsewhere and the UA’s own graduation rates, Johnsen predicted, that within six years only five out of 100 Alaska students will graduate.
“How do we meet these tremendous needs while our budgets are being cut?” Johnsen said. “For the last forty years, we’ve been literally swimming in oil money with only a few bumps along the way. But that era is passing and we have to do all we can to create a future for our university and for our state.”
After the hostile reaction to the Strategic Pathways initiative received from across the university as well as the community upon its original announcement last spring, Johnsen emphasized in his remarks, the need and desire for collaboration with the public on this project.
“We have choices to make,” Johnsen said. “And instead of choosing to climb under the table and wait for oil prices to climb back up we’ve decided to actually be strategic and try to figure out how best to make decisions that build on strengths of each one of our three universities.”
Johnsen mentioned multiple times throughout his presentation not only his willingness, but his eagerness to hear any solid suggestions on where to go next. He reiterated this decision cannot and should not be made by a small panel behind closed doors.
“We’re a public university and we don’t get to do that,” Johnsen said. “We shouldn’t do that.”
Johnsen’s pleas for teamwork in solving this issue were met with complaints from members of the UAF community during the public comments at the end of the forum.
Microphones were placed on each side of the stage where members of the public could wait to express their thoughts on the matter, a line on the left for athletics related comments and a line on the right for academic comments. Athletics was the subject of the hour, however, with commenters using both lines to express their concerns for the Nanooks.
“By the time I left high school, I had to grades and scholarships offers that I could have gone to MIT, but I chose to attend UAF because in 1974 they started the women’s basketball team,” said Diane Hutchison, a Fairbanks Northstar Borough Assembly members. “I stayed in Fairbanks because of the connections that I made in this community through my athletics at UAF.”
Hutchison’s two adult children also attended UAF.
“Many of my employees are born and raised Fairbanksans who attended the university and decided to stay and work here,” Steve Lundgren, president and CEO of Denali State Bank, said. “I am concerned that if those programs are cut, the university is going to lose community support because you no longer have that outreach to the community itself.”
While several strong arguments were made in defense of academics, the vast majority of comments pertained to athletics, illustrating the impact that UAF sports has on the community.
Two more forums will be held later in the month to discuss progress on the Strategic Pathways initiative, one at the University of Alaska Anchorage on Sept. 8 and the second on Sept. 13 in Juneau. The Board of Regents will then convene to discuss further steps.