UA system president Johnsen outlines budget points

Spencer Tordoff / Web Editor

UA System President James Johnsen in his office, Monday, October 5, 2015.

UA System President James Johnsen in his office, Monday, October 5, 2015.

Though it might seem counter-intuitive in an era of state fiscal cuts, new University of Alaska System President James Johnsen said that the system’s legislative budget request of nearly $378 million – an increase of nearly eight percent over last year – represents nothing less than utility.

“We are asking for what we need,” said Johnsen, who specified that much of the budget increase represents previously negotiated pay raises and unfunded federal mandates including Title IX compliance and enforcement.

The incoming president said that with declining state revenue, budget cuts are likely to be faced by the university system in the future — with a reduction of about $15 million anticipated for fiscal year 2017 alone.

“The likelihood is that we’ll be cut,” Johnsen said. “Our plan is not to be silly and naive.”

Johnsen said that a reduced budget will be formulated through meetings with the Board of Regents, with information on finances expected from the legislature. He further added that university faculty, staff, and students would have the chance to make their voices heard in this process.

“I want to really include people on and bring people along on… this journey, basically, of figuring out what this contingency budget looks like,” said Johnsen, “so there won’t be any surprises.”

Though no changes have been finalized, Johnsen discussed a number of options being considered for closing the university’s funding gap. Tuition hikes are as option, with increases of 5 to 10 percent being considered by UA leadership.

“I still realize it’s hard, I still realize it’s more money out of students’ pockets.” Johnsen said, “but… we’ve got to make a balanced approach here.”

Reductions to programs are also likely to occur, but Johnsen has said that he does not favor the common method of reducing all programs by a set percentage.

“That means that the weak get weaker, and the strong get weaker,” said Johnsen. “That’s not a way to build a university for the future in my view, because then everybody is just going downhill.”

Instead, Johnsen advocates looking at the entire UA system, and reducing programs that are offered on multiple campuses so that they’re only offered on one or two — a strategy he refers to as “vertical cuts.” He emphasized that this approach would allow remaining programs to grow and stay competitive.

“My personal view, I believe the regents share this view, is that through this difficult time… we want to have things that we are investing in and growing… at each of our university campuses,” Johnsen said.

Professional and graduate degree programs would be looked at first and foremost for these reductions, but undergraduate programs will also be considered. As a result, students may be required to attend specific campuses for their selected area of study, rather than finding the same programs at every UA campus.

“We can’t have two of [the Geophysical Institute], right?” said Johnsen. “We really don’t need, we can’t afford, additional graduate programs in areas where we already have one.”

For facilities renovations that the budget would otherwise be unable to fund, Johnsen said he’ll consider seeking “Public-Private Partnerships”. The $28 million expansion of Wood Center was created through such a partnership, mostly funded through bonds issued by private company Community Properties Alaska. CPA now owns the building, and is leasing it to UAF at $1.45 million per year for the next 30 years. Once the bonds are paid off, Wood Center will be gifted back to the university.

Johnsen also cited an example from Ohio State University, where the parking facilities of the campus were sold to a private company.

“It gives the university the opportunity to monetize what is ancillary to its core academic mission,” he said.

Though Johnsen said that his time at Alaska Communications was very different from academia, he drew parallels with his role at the university in a couple of categories. One point was his stated commitment to efficiency, and intent to streamline bureaucratic workflows.

“UAF, to its credit, has a group in [the Office of Management and Budget] that does process improvement,” Johnsen said. “I’m really going to emphasize that to clean up value-producing processes.”

Johnsen’s private-sector experience also drives his emphasis on recruiting, retaining, and developing personnel and students in the UA system.

“People, people, people,” Johnsen said. “That’s where the value comes from.”

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