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Is Jim Johnsen the right leader for the university system?


University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen announced on Monday that 2,500 staff and faculty were receiving 10-day furlough notices as a result of the budget cuts from the State of Alaska.

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Gov. Michael Dunleavy vetoed $130 million from the university system on top of the $5 million already cut by the Alaska Legislature.

Johnsen — and all UA administrators — have known this was coming since February, when the governor submitted his budget to the Legislature.

[Read: University professor gets students to write protesting budget — for credit]

Dunleavy has cut state spending by 12.9 percent this year, but the budget cuts to the university system are 17-18 percent of the university system’s overall budget. A bigger hit, to be sure, but with plenty of notice.


Last year, the University received an unrestricted general fund (UGF) appropriation of $327 million. It allocated this appropriation to its three core services as follows:

As the table shows, the University of Alaska has access to non-UGF sources in the form of federal funds, tuition (which is designated general funds – DGF), fees and receipts (DGF/Other), as well as donations.

The University also has reserve funds and an endowment. The FY2019 Management plan was 888.5 million — over three quarters of a billion dollars being spent for 17,555 students — more than $50,000 per student.

The University is and has been heavily dependent on state funding, far more than its peers, and far more than what is needed to account for the higher cost of living and expenses in Alaska. The State of Alaska provides more than double the per-student funding, as compared to Lower 48 state-funded universities.

The cuts to the university system brings the per-student subsidy down to 145 percent of the national average.


Such cuts — 17 percent is not insignificant — demand reimagining the university system and its 17 campuses, restructuring, and leadership. Does Johnsen have what it takes?

When Johnsen was hired in 2015, he appeared to realize that the spending couldn’t continue. He told the Alaska Dispatch News that one of his missions was to diversify revenue streams, and he acknowledged that getting 45 percent of the systems funds from the Legislature was problematic:

“We rely for 45 percent of our revenue on the state Legislature and, of course, that revenue source is in trouble, given low oil prices and gradually declining productivity. That’s a challenge for us, so we’ve really got to try to diversify our revenue sources as much as we possibly can. At the same time, we’ve got to grow where we’re strong. The idea that we’re going to just sort of hunker down and take incremental cuts is, I think, irresponsible. There are so many strong programs at the university linked up with powerful and compelling needs of the state. Health care workforce. Teachers. … We’ve got to double down on that. We’re producing something like only 25 percent of the teachers hired each year. We’ve got to really step that up,” he said.

Four years later under his leadership, the teaching program at the University of Alaska Anchorage lost its accreditation. Graduation rates are at 10 percent for four-year students, and enrollment is down.

Johnsen, rather than pivot and look for ways to fundamentally change the business model, persisted with misinformation, using precious treasure and time to fight the inevitable. He has told the media repeatedly this year that the governor’s budget was cutting 45 percent of the system’s entire budget.

That’s not so and he knew it wasn’t so. Even after challenged, he persisted in telling the lie. The $135 million cut is only 17-18 percent of the system’s entire budget.

But the lie gets repeated around academia. Take a look at this story from a science blog, which says the cut is 40 percent of the university system’s entire budget:


While Johnsen has been battling with an expensive PR campaign, and asks the public to contact lawmakers to urge them to override the veto, he needs 45 of the 60 members of the House and Senate. That is a high hill to climb when his statements to the public have been less than truthful.

Then there’s the warning signs that have been showing up for years since he took over at the University of Alaska.

Since 2015, Moody’s credit rating services has downgraded the university after several years of warnings about the over reliance on State money:


Back in 2015, in answer to a question from the Alaska Dispatch News, Johnsen said the challenge of UA is a three-legged stool:

He said … “cost-effectiveness — we’ve just got to drive it. It’s one of our critical priorities. Access — whenever we have the opportunity to expand access, we expand access. And third, is quality. We can’t compromise quality. We’ve got to invest in quality because that’s why students will come here. It’s really all three of those. I would hope that students say, ‘Wow, it’s cost effective. It’s right here, I’ve got access and man, is it good.'”

Johnsen elaborated on efficiencies and cost savings in that interview:

“When you want to get specific, however, we’ve got to streamline processes and reduce costs, so that we can invest in our academic priorities. So sort of administrative streamlining — critical. It falls under the cost-effectiveness line. Teacher education, teacher education, teacher education — it’s just critical for us. … And then I’d say right off the top — very important — is how do we support the state? How do we support the state making very difficult decisions? That’s where ISER (UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research) falls in and providing our researchers to the state government. But we have to free up their time to do that. They have to be paid to do that. So that’s going to take some resources from us and perhaps from the state.”

But in 2019, Johnsen appears to be in full battle mode, refusing to transform an institution that has been losing students, has had its teaching program at UAA lose accreditation, and has not been producing nearly enough graduates.

“With a four year graduation rate of 8.0%, first-time students in the University of Alaska Anchorage class of 2013 who attended classes full-time were among the least likely in the nation to graduate on time. After six years, the graduation ratewas 31.0% and by 2017, 37.5% of this class had completed their degree,” according to

The question is: Can Johnsen lead this university into becoming a sustainable institution? Because he’s had four years to do so and he’s run out of runway.

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Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.


  1. Johnsen needs to go and the Governor should give him the “boot” for all the waste. The cumbersome system as it is now, needs to be broken up. Some campuses to tech schools and some to Junior or Community colleges. Three larger campuses to name their own and manage their own. Maybe into Private schools, but no longer should the state have so many campuses on a state managed system.

    • I agree… the UA system is overbuilt for the scant 700,000 population that Alaska boasts. 17 Campuses… what a mess.

      Good job Dunleavy, you are doing the tough work that nobody else had the guts to do. Keep finding waste and get rid of it.

      • Good reply, Griz. The UA system continues to suck the lifeblood out of the state’s treasuries…..and no good results. I’m a UA alum. Big deal. It means squat out in the workforce. The only thing it gets you is non-stop solicitations to give to the alumni association. Dunleavy is doing the right thing. Pull the plug, governor. The swamp will drain itself. UA WEAK!

        • Most of these new UA graduates can’t write in full sentences. Too much time texting, sexting, Facebook and internet entertainment. Complete loss of attention.
          Defund UA!

          • Johnnie, I know a retired Liberal Arts professor from UAF who says the same thing you have described. The newby grads in the UA system are coming out unprepared, and in some cases, dismally educated.
            The prof’s own words, “Many of these students graduate with lack of basic reading and writing skills, which results in failure of critical thinking.”

  2. Wow…it is worse than I thought at the University of Alaska.
    Thanks for this insightful story…
    In light of the 8 percent graduation rate, loss of accreditation for teaching program and general “malaise” on campus it is probably a good time for new leadership.
    As UAA hockey team also gets tossed out of their division by other colleges,
    We should look at the 21st century and different sports Americans (and International students) are interested in.
    Sports like climbing, skiing, mountain biking, paddling and running are more popular than the old school “contact sports” students participated in for years.
    Strengthening online training programs should also be a focus of the “new” administration as they move forward.
    For too long, too many administrators in the “Ivory Tower” have stood by while the writing has clearly been on the wall.
    I do not support all of the Governor’s budget cuts, but as far as the University system is concerned…this one is long overdue.
    We should not reward a system with 6 figure salaries when a mere 8 percent of freshmen students may make it to graduation….totally unacceptable and obviously not working for the students who pay for this education.

    • Steve! Nice! We often disagree, but I have always respected your input. We are at least reading the same book on the UA debacle! For sure on the strengthing of online services – way better than a campus in every village. Those pay-off days are over. Notice how crappy the results are here with the top-heavy administration? You have pointed it out as one of your points of the UAA system failures. It is the same way with ASD – and the taxpayers are paying for that mess. UAA even shelters pervert professors.
      It is time for a deep colon cleanse. Cut the head off of the snake (Johnsen) and let’s get busy.

      • In response to the village campuses, from what I understand the governor is not allowing the cuts to come from those campuses.

      • To clarify: my use of “cut the head off the snake” is as an idiom only and is not in any way to suggest physical harm against Mr. Johnsen (or anyone for that matter)

    • Here, here, Steve Stine. You have finally arrived at Must Read Alaska. Welcome aboard, Friend!

    • Steve, I agree with you. It’s despicable (to me, at least) is that Johnsen’s first response to budget cut is sending out furlough notices to the 2,500 staff. Why not any of the administrators? Why not trying to rein in the 17 campuses and put the three main ones under one roof instead of three independent administrations? There’s lots of options that Johnson could have been trying to work on since 2015 (you know, the way he said he would) or even trying to have an actual conversation with Gov Dunleavy. Nope. Just automatically puts the lowest paid workers, the staff, on furlough notice.
      You’re right. We shouldn’t keep rewarding a system of 6 figure salaries while running it in the ground.

  3. A resounding NO! Johnsen is taking the crybaby and whining approach to the budget cuts, not a mature, adult, business-like approach. Is he just another old, Liberal lefty Democrat? Don’t know, but probably. Sounding the drumbeats of panic by initiating a “UA STRONG” campaign to resist the Governor is child-like. He’s listening to radicals like John Davies of the Board of Regents. And bringing in the Cole twins to a campaign style rally on campus is laughable. Who cares!
    What happened to UA presidents of the past, like visionaries Dr. Patty and Dr. Bunnell? These guys knew how to run a university system. These days, all we get are whining little technocrats who have PhD’s in psychology and sociology.
    Johnsen has not shown his mettle as a leader. His foray into the Lefty wilderness only shows his inabilities to deal with reality. Drumming up opposition to the Governor will be viewed as counter-productive. Johnson will be viewed as a loser, albeit a rich loser, with all of the wealth he personally attained during his brief tenure as UA president. He should do the honorable thing and donate 60% of his exorbitant income back to the system that he so believes in.

    • He is trying to publicize it to get more momentum going on his behalf. Notice that the other university’s in or great state are not crying. That’s because they are not subsidized like the UA is. It’s high time for the state to stop competing with other universities. Good going Governor Dunleavy we are behind you. Just wish you would have left our seniors out of this political issue they needed all the money they can get.

    • The Cole twins have been spreading their manure throughout the Fairbanks community for decades. And all they have to show for it is a huge pile of crap. Shovel it aside, Governor Dunleavy.

      • Actually, some of the Cole twin’s manure has spawned weed among Democrats. Of course, that weed is rolled and smoked by the Lefties who continue to listen to the little Cole’s propoganda. Lefty manure begets more Lefty manure.

  4. Cut all the BS and say it like it is. The entire UA “machine” has been over funded, under performing, for many years. The leftist propaganda coming out of Johnsen would be appropriate, maybe, in Illinois, not Alaska. If left to Johnsen, Alaska would compare to Illinois in inane spending ($150 billion shortfall in ‘public employee’ pension shortfall alone), and would bankrupt the State of Alaska to cover just the UA overall expense. Guess Johnsen doesn’t care, as long as he and leftist cronies get theirs. He says ‘educating teachers’ is a priority. Why, then, does he run non-accredited programs for those ‘teachers’? Worthless “education”. Now, he’s appealing to leftist institutions nation wide for support, in Alaska, for his own academic shortfalls, that he and he alone has the responsibility to address. I say, get rid of this “academic” parasite and cronies, and bring in an administrator(s) who doesn’t put leftist political ideology in front of his imperative to educate Alaskans first, in real life courses, realism and idealism. He wouldn’t last one hour on a real job.

  5. Does Alaska even need a public university system? We don’t even have a population of 1 million. Why can’t local private universities provide any necessary education? They seem to do it for less money and none of it comes from the State. Also, an Alaskan can go out of state and pay less than it cost to go to UA!

    • What private universities??? APU??? And private colleges DON’T do it for less money. Take a look at private college tuition + other income. Also, Alaskans will NOT pay less out of state. I’m sorry, but you seem very unfamiliar with the college landscape in AK and everywhere else.

  6. He should have been out of a job on the day several weeks ago, that he showed his supreme arrogance by pompously announcing that he had no intention of negotiating with the governor about state funding for the university.
    He seemed to think that Dunleavey should just shut his mouth and write a check for the amount Johnsen demanded.

    • Oh, but let’s suck the teet of the state, blow the funds on ridiculous programs, and high administrative costs and then when it is time to close the spigot, cry and whine and bite the hand that has been feeding you since inception. And, provide a complimentary shivving to the corporate world that helps fund ALL of state government – don’t forget to do that!!! Johnsen is such a tool. Time to go.

  7. Johnsen demonstrates cowardice and weakness. Any sissy can beg and plead for more money from the government. It takes courage and strength to say NO. Johnson’s time has run out, as Steve Stine has articulated above. Johnson’s followers are the dispensable parties and overpaid employees, who are sucking their last gasps. Send Johnsen packing too. He is no longer fit to lead. He has become nothing more than a crybaby and shill for the insane dogs on the Left. DUNLEAVY STRONG!

  8. You know that many UA faculty think JJ should go?
    Which has me wonder if the sissy libs don’t like JJ and the patriotic
    don’t like JJ
    and the Regents likes JJ-who picks the Regents? oh the Governor. He has picked 2 of the 9.

    • John Davies runs the Board of Regents. Check his track record, DB. Extremist. Radical. Leftist. HE is the real problem. This is a fight between Dunleavy and Davies. I’ll bet high on Dunleavy.

      • TS Samantha: good points. John Davies was responsible for getting Luke Hopkins to the Mayor’s seat on FNSB for two terms. Davies was behind the scenes, as defacto mayor. Everyone knows that. Now, Davies is running the Democrat wing of the State House through Hopkin’s kid, Grier Hopkins. Everyone knows that.
        Get rid of John Davies from the UA Board of Regents and half of the problems will disappear. Are you listening……..Governor???

  9. Davies just became chair. Gloria-the last chair thought very well of JJ. As did Heckman. the chair before

  10. I know Jim Johnsen, worked with him in State Labor Relations for awhile. I wouldn’t hire him, but I don’t hate him. He’s actually the perfect model of the kind of person who goes far in a bureaucracy; he is an obsequious briefcase-toter and can say, “Yes Sir, yes Sir, three bags full” and click his heels together with great style and panache.

    Jim was among the least senior of the senior L/R staff in the controversial late Cowper and Hickel times. Actually he may have not come to L/R until Hickel, but he had been with APEA, worked for the State elsewhere and came over to L/R. He didn’t have a strong labor relations background, but he was stylish and charming. Frankly, those of us who’d been around awhile did not play well with others and we weren’t very deferential to political managers. Dianne Corso was the Section Manager at the time and was one of the most accomplished people I’ve ever know. We had a “house rule” that Dianne was not allowed to meet with our Director alone for fear that she might hurt him. My reputation for sociability was no better, probably worse, back then than it is now.

    The congenital ‘crats took out several of Hickel’s appointees. Nancy Usera became the Commissioner of Administration and she didn’t know where the light switches and restrooms were in the Juneau State Office Building, and like most of the Hickel people she was so paranoid of State employees that she wouldn’t ask. We were in bargaining with the, then, formidable Troopers’ Union and Nancy’s choice was whether to sent cranky and contentious Art Chance or charming Jim Johnsen to deal with them. Like most Republicans, Nancy liked charming, so she sent Jim. Bill Germain and Bob Piazza used Jim like the cabin boy on a Greek freighter. Jim had the good sense to decide to further his education and went on to his academic career. I got to do the wet clean-up on Aisle 3.

    That was the only time I’ve ever just thrown a case. I looked at where we were and told Nancy there was no hope for our position; the only option I had was to go lose the arbitration so badly that the Legislature would gag on paying for it, and it would be up to her to manage that. I lost very expensively and the Legislature didn’t want to pay for it. They said some bad things about me, but I’ll credit Nancy for defending me. The Legislature disapproved the contract and PSEA had to sue for peace. If I ever do a Highlights Film, macho boys Germain and Piazzo having to make peace with Nancy Usera and Dianne Corso will have a prominent place.

    Jim doesn’t work for the Governor; he works for the Board of Regents, and the majority of them don’t like the Governor. It is a sad commentary that with years of Republican Governors and Legislatures, the BOR is still Democrat chattel. The Governor can’t fire Jim, and as long as he does what they want, the BOR won’t. So, this is really on the Legislature; they’ll either override the vetoes or they won’t. If they do, the UA sails happily along with more overhead than a coal mine giving sinecures to Democrats. If they don’t override, the UA has some serious problems. I know lefties, and they’re all lefties, well enough to know that they’ll just try to ride it out; there is always another election coming.

    • I love you Art! Great walk down the crusty memory lane and outlining how it works. We both hung in Juneau in state gov around the same time so I always know of who you speak and the administrations in which they (we) all worked. Thanks for keeping it real.

  11. You said it, Art. John Davies is the
    A$$ whole UA mafia boss. Johnsen takes his orders there. Dunleavy: get rid of them at the top, and your problems diminish. Legislators who override will be SOL next year.

  12. Agree with Art and Paul, above: The Prez just works for the Regents and the Regents are largely owned by the UA staff. When all of the dust settles, 75 percent of the cuts will fall on UAA. UAA will be cut before any of the non-principal campuses are eliminated. UAF is the queen bee and will be protected at almost all costs. Congratulations, Regents: Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.

  13. The University of Alaska may be far more dependent than its peers on state funding, but UA tuition is also among the lowest in the nation when measured as percentage of average household income. Fact is: our state pays more so our students can pay less. University systems where state funding was slashed in the wake of the recession have had to ratchet up tuition swiftly; Arizona, which saw the biggest cuts over the past 10 years, had to increase tuition over 90% in that same period. So if you want to contribute less state funding to the university, understand that it will inevitably make college less affordable for students, limiting who can go and saddling them with debt for longer.

  14. It’s weird how we each live in our own echo chamber. I have no great love for the leadership of Jim Johnsen or John Davies–the loss of the UAA School of Education in 2018 was a predictable result of the managerial chaos that followed their ill-conceived reorganization of that school in 2016.

    But I’d think training the engineers that build Alaska’s roads and bridges, and training qualified Alaskan nurses and doctors for our hospitals, would have bipartisan support. And until Donna Arduin showed up with her blunt budget hatchet, it did!

    • I can count on the fingers of one hand the new State roads and bridges that have been built in the over 40 years I’ve lived here. They’ve only produced a miniscule number of nurses and they don’t have a medical school. So, perhaps a “blunt budget hatchet” is the right idea; maybe a large, sharp budget axe would be more appropriate.

  15. 41% of 327 in GF from the State of Alaska to UA is 134 million, I don’t think the 40% # is deceptive.

    The more relevant number, now that the Governor is pitting UAA vs. UAF vs. Statewide, is the GF allocation that went to UAA, vs UAF, vs UA statewide. The only way to get to 134 is to cut UAA or UAF. The funds that come in from tuition, federal and other sources are irrelevant if the cut to GF kills core services – equivalent to about 2,500 employees. It’s best just to shut the entire campus or keep some smaller vo-tech or community college options available.

    Who is going to win the battle between the Flagship, Statewide, and Anchorage? In the end, UA Statewide prefers this outcome as the Flagship emerges stronger as do the remote rural campuses that don’t compete with UAF. Who is worse off? Students, taxpayers, and the commerce hub of the State. Many more Alaska high school students will now attend out of State and won’t return home. Many have resented the success of UAA in the last 15 years and there has been a concerted effort to block progress through limits of allocation of GF, program restrictions, etc.

    • OK now that I’ve taken a look at the OMB report that was referenced in this article, it’s clear the report was advocacy and not a neutral OMB analysis – e.g. “Alaska can’t wait any longer. The time is now.” Which consulting group wrote the report and how much were they paid?

      It seems clear the consultants weren’t from Alaska and there are many many fallacies in the report. For instance, we don’t need a business school in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Really!!? Two of the most efficient colleges on both campuses that supply an educated business workforce to the 2 biggest cities in Alaska.

      OK so if Donna and the Governor were really interested in reducing administrative costs why did the Governor state in his email to UA employees he was “agnostic” as to where the cuts were made? Why is he leaving alone the smallest least efficient campuses? Why is UAS untouched? Why is he leaving UA Statewide in charge of the cuts – will Administrators really cut their own positions to save core programs for students?

      Could it be that decimating the States largest public university in Anchorage has something to do with opening the door for private “for-profit” colleges in Anchorage? One of Donna’s pals is probably looking to make a buck. She has a record in such dealings with private prisons; she’s profited from private prisons in other states when leaving office due to decisions she made as a public official. Look it up.

      I’m a long-term conservative but believe these cuts are reckless and Donna is indifferent to the long-term effects on Alaskans. Dunleavy needs to lead and not be manhandled by an out-of-state profiteer who doesn’t care what happens in Alaska 6 months from now.

  16. Is Jim Johnsen the right leader for the university system?
    Well sure, just like Joseph Hazelwood was the right skipper for the Exxon Valdez…

  17. Hi there,

    My name is Kobe Rizk and I am the student intern for Must Read Alaska. I wanted to make everyone in the comments section aware of the MRAK political forum just launched last month. I have set up a topic related to the University of Alaska, and I welcome all of your thoughts. Simply navigate to the “Forums” tab of the home page and find the FY2020 budget forum under “Alaska Politics”. If you have any questions, please reach out to me at [email protected].

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts.


  18. Yikes. An interesting history from Art Chance about how you become the King of the Bureaucracy.
    Sadly, this is what our world has become – a bunch of posers who wear suits and ties and pretend they know what to do.
    Its all I can do to wear a flannel shirt and a Bolo tie.
    My bottom line view IS that the University is much too large and needs to consolidate.
    The UA Real Estate Dept. told me to go away when I offered a win-win deal, Part of their corrupt deal-making schemes. I was too honest.

    • I just wanted an honest evaluation from the UA Real Estate Dept. Instead I got a bunch of disrespect and political BS. They wanted to use me as a spear against the Regents.
      They should all be fired and replaced.

  19. I think that there are a few misleading pieces of information in here, and I’d also like to hear who exactly people think will take on the job of leading UA.
    1) the UA Strong campaign is privately funded. I don’t know by whom, but to say that the president has been “battling with an expensive PR campaign” is misleading. That campaign doesn’t come from the UA budget.
    2) Why not just come out and state the president’s salary, compare it with the guy who came before him who asked for a bonus the size of his salary, and was replaced? Pres. Johnson makes about $370K per year. PLEASE someone out there find a person who’s so passionate about Alaska and Alaskans and willing to work as hard as he does for less money. You all seem to think that people at UA are bathing in gold nuggets. This is far from the truth and you can look it up, the salaries are available online.
    3) Sure, some articles will misstate the funding cut at 40% of total instead of 40% from the state, but whose fault is that? It’s the fault of the reporter not doing the full job under tight deadlines and with a lot of information coming in all at once. Why blame Johnson? That seems unfair.
    4) You seem to imply that all UA does is suck money from the state. Why not also report all the numbers showing how much it gives back to the state? According to a recent article in Forbes, “the University of Alaska system provided $714 million (directly) and $402 million (indirectly) to the statewide economy (year 2012 numbers).”
    5) A lot of people responding to Downing’s articles are incensed by the thought of students taking courses like “women’s studies” and learning about climate change. Here’s a thought — why don’t you come enroll in some courses at your closest UA campus, pay a private college level of tuition, and then come back and criticize the entire system?

  20. I personally worked for the UA for ten years. In that time I learned a lot about how the UA operations. The UA could slash there budget by almost 1/3 by changing the operations and never effect the staff or the students. So look in your back pocket and decide how you want to spend your money. I would even be willing to help change that just contact me.

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