UA President discusses the budget and ‘Strategic Pathways’

Erin McGroarty / Sun Star

Six months ago, UA President Jim Johnsen took the position of leadership for a university in a serious financial crisis.  The fiscal struggle of the state and in turn, the three-campus UA system, did not deter Johnsen from taking the position, however.

What do we do when we’re driving along in Fairbanks and it’s forty below and there’s ice fog and there’s a vehicle off the side of the road with its hazard lights on?” Johnsen said. “You pull over and help. That’s why I’m here.”

Johnsen’s biggest concern regarding the university’s financial crisis is the possibility of receiving massive cuts before there is a plan of action.

With the potential for severe budget cuts up for discussion in the Alaska legislature right now, Johnsen is working with university officials and the Board of Regents to figure out a plan that will give the university more time to strategize a new direction that will slim expenses with the least detrimental effects on UA itself.  

“These are not decisions that are best made so quickly,” he said.

Johnsen described that one of the key elements of Strategic Pathways is taking proper time to make these decisions. If the plan is pushed through, the next three years will be spent evaluating programs and administrative services before anything is set in stone. 

“These choices need to be made carefully with students and faculty and staff involved. With data and with time,” Johnsen explained. “We’re going to have to make these decisions and they’re going to be hard ones. But my concern is if we get cut really hard right away, we won’t have that planning time.”

Johnsen is disheartened by the reality of position-cutting across the UA system.

“Most of our budget is people,” Johnsen said. “And if, rather when, we get cut it’s inevitable that some positions will also be cut. We don’t know where right now, but it presents a serious challenge.”

As the budget is cut and the UA system becomes leaner, Johnsen said his biggest focus will be maintaining excellent programs where they already have the strongest presence.

“For example, it would be ridiculous and irresponsible for us to cut the nursing program at UAA,” Johnsen said. “Similarly, the thought of cutting research to UAF is quite frankly insane when it’s the number one research university on Arctic subjects.”

Johnsen feels as the budget becomes smaller the university ought to invest in growth where it will create the strongest effects.

“I’m wanting to grow in the important areas even during this difficult period so that students still have reason to be here,” Johnsen said. “We may no longer be excellent at forty things anymore, maybe only thirty-two, but there is still excellence and it would mean we are still growing, but in focused distinctive areas.”

Johnsen said his job would be much easier if he simply doled out allocated percentage reductions to each campus but he does not consider that as leadership or a long term solution for a fiscal struggle that he does not feel is going away anytime soon.

According to Johnsen, the Strategic Pathways plan is simply a possible framework from which to evaluate programs based on the specific campuses pre-existing strengths.

“What I tried to do there was base the restructuring model on what the schools are already uniquely strong at. Stronger than the other two campuses,” Johnsen said. “And given the budget situation if we can’t have excellent programs in all three places, we need to figure out where the best fit for it is based on preexisting factors.”

 Johnsen said that when looking at where to make cuts, certain aspects of the administrative level is definitely on the table along with programs and services.

“I’ve just been looking over a 150-page report about how we can adjust the size of administration across the state,” Johnsen said. “IT is another high-cost area. We’re looking to see how we can cut costs there as well.”

With rumors flying about the potential of cutting the College of Liberal Arts, Johnsen would like to reassure students that while some programs will be cut internally, no program will be cut from the UA system altogether.

“Liberal arts and humanities courses are a part of every university so of course there will be courses offered at each campus in those areas,” he said. “The one thing that is still unclear, left so intentionally, is whether we are going to have a lead campus in liberal arts.”

Johnsen would like to encourage students across all three campuses to continue to reach out to legislators expressing their views regarding the value of the university and their opinions regarding potential budget cuts.

“One legislator said she had received over 800 emails from students and community members and that’s great, so we should really keep that up.”

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