UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT SHOULD RISE TO THE OCCASION
By TOM WILLIAMS
I read with interest the response to the Governor Dunleavy’s substantial veto of the University of Alaska’s state-funded budget. In particular, UA President Jim Johnsen called the reductions “devastating” and portrayed a situation that would lead to a spiraling down of the University. Mr. Johnsen was not alone.
The comments to several Anchorage Daily News articles were equally disparaging of those vetoes.
Several of the ADN commenters asserted that Mr. Johnsen had in the past referred to the University of Alaska as a “world class” university. Although Mr. Johnsen actually only used the term “world-class” with respect to research at UA, he did state that UA was keeping a “clear eye on academic excellence.”
If this is the case and not some self-serving fluff, then we should have educators at the UA with significant expertise, including those in public policy, government, finance and business. I would also think that the UA has administrators with significant amount of practical expertise.
Furthering that line of thinking, if we have such educators and administrators, then dealing with a significant change in public policy and funding should not be nearly as daunting a task as Mr. Johnsen and Board of Regents Chairman John Davies assert.
That is not to say the university does not face significant and real challenges as a result of the governor’s vetoes. However, such qualified administrators and professors should surely be up to the challenge they face. Perhaps rather than crying about the cuts and expending an all-out effort to have the vetoes overridden, the Board of Regents, administrators and professors should grab hold of the challenge and show just how capable the University of Alaska administration, faculty, and staff are. Or are they only capable when there is plenty of money for every program and then some?
If Mr. Johnsen and the University of Alaska administration cannot make sound decisions that will ensure the university’s future with a reduced budget, then we can only conclude that they are not the capable administrators they alleged to be. Because a good administrator, let alone an excellent administrator, would simply move forward with identifying the core highest-demand education programs of the university and making sure those programs will remain the best they can be within the available budget. They would quickly announce the programs that would remain a priority within the university to alleviate concerns of those students entering or continuing on in those programs.
Similarly, they would make quick decisions, however painful, about which programs will be dropped so that students and the related faculty can make other plans. As part of the process they would take immediate steps to eliminate as many management levels and low-return functions as possible.
Successfully responding to significant budget cuts is not that daunting if a person is resolved to live within their given budget while remaining committed to offering quality, although reduced, education and research opportunities. The keys are attitude, determination, and willingness. Hard decisions, even politically incorrect decisions, will have to be made.
Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of making those difficult but necessary decisions. I have found that those people who scream the loudest when faced with difficult decisions are the least capable of making good decisions. The person who can best deal with such a challenge will simply start focusing on how to accomplish the goal, rather than bemoaning a dire situation.
Assuming Mr. Johnsen is an effective leader of a university with at least some “world-class” functions, he should get to work instead of bemoaning what lies ahead. If he isn’t up to the task or doesn’t have the stomach for it, then he should resign and let someone else step into that role. It is not that difficult to make good, albeit difficult, decisions. You just have to be capable and willing. Let’s see if Mr. Johnsen is both capable and willing to do so.
Tom Williams of Juneau is a 42-year resident of Alaska. He’s worked for aviation-related companies for the past 19 years, was director of two Department of Revenue divisions, including the Permanent Fund Dividend Division, and served on the staff of the Senate Finance and Legislative Budget and Audit committees. As director of the Department of Revenue Enforcement Division during the significant decline in state oil revenues in the 1980s, he had to make significant reductions to his division’s budget. He made the best informed and thought-out decisions he could, only to realize that his division provided as good or better service than before he was required to reduce the division’s budget.