University president: Resign ourselves to economic recession? - Must Read Alaska
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University president: Resign ourselves to economic recession?

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It’s not clear if University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen was engaging in irony, has simply resigned himself to a bleak future for the state … Or it there’s simply a typo in the university’s transcription of Johnsen’s 2019 State of the University address this afternoon at the Wood Center Ballroom on the Fairbanks campus?

The entire address can be watched at this link.

The way the tweet reads, Johnsen appears to have decided Alaska should just accept losing population and an extended economic recession. The transcript has yet to be posted, so perhaps his message was lost in translation because it received a standing ovation, according to UA’s Twitter feed.

Johnsen’s message was generally upbeat and inspirational, and he lifted up the university’s research programs as world class, particularly in the area of Arctic research.

He admitted that the loss of accreditation of the teacher licensure programs at UAA “is most certainly a failure.” Johnsen said the Board of Regents will decide on April 8 whether to seek accreditation for those UAA programs.

Facing a budget cut from the State of Alaska that is 17 percent of the University System’s entire budget, Johnsen used the opportunity to make the case that the university is a good investment.

The proposed cut is $134 million, he said “or 41 percent of our state funding of $327 on top of state funding cuts four out of the last five years. These cuts hurt UA and they harm Alaska’s ability to grow the highly trained workforce we need to be economically competitive.”

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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.

Latest comments

  • It’s time for Johnsen to move on. He should resign and move to another job appropriately in his trend of thinking and management. It’s not with the UA System in Alaska. And, I hope that Gov. Dunleavy has the good sense to have the use of funds in the past investigated to know exactly where and what happened with the UA System and campuses. While Johnsen managed, things went from good and working to bad and worse.

    • I like the Resign part of the headline.

  • UAF was named today in the top 10 small universities IN THE WORLD. It is a valuable resource to our state and should not be overlooked. I know and agree that cuts must be made – it’s mathematical – but the Republican party is remiss in acknowledging what a treasure we have in UAF. My daughter left an uppity private university down south because their accounting program was not up to the standard of that at University of Alaska Fairbanks. We also have world class engineering and research programs. Again, we must cut to the bare minimum, but we shouldn’t forsake absolute assets to our state and its future.

    • I too have heard good things about UAF. UAA? Not so much. Alaska is a raw materials state. It seems that programs and classes should be oriented towards dealing with them to maintain the economy hence the culture. It seems that there are few opportunities for our best and brightest. To the extent that it can, the state should be working with its university system to supply talented folks to its three-legged support industries, oil, tourism, and fishing. Simultaneously the state should be looking towards the next step, perhaps that would be the production of plastics from oil, wood chips, fish bones, or something like that. Then talented folks would be encouraged to stay here and so that talented folks would be attracted to here. Maybe Alaska will become the home of the worlds finest pencils. Developing and producing them will take some talent.

    • Yes, UAF has some great programs. However, UA as a whole needs some serious changes. Alaskan economics over the last couple of years have pointed out that UAF, UAA, and UAS all have the same exact programs. Instead, let each of them only have programs they excel. Make UAA all about health and accounting, UAF sciences, and UAS fisheries. Let them decide where the other programs would best fit.
      Another reform UA should do is make them be on the same health care plan that the State is using. Having a different plan is more costly, to both UA and the State, in the long run.
      Here in Anchorage, there are lots of buildings off campus. Every time I drive by, they all have their lights on regardless of time of day. Why not update all buildings and rooms have lights that automatically turn off when not in use? It’s not difficult to do this. There are several local businesses that can help.
      And my biggest gripe? Their travel budget. Why do people in Anchorage have to fly to Fairbanks to attend a meeting? And stay in a hotel one or two nights? Do the universities not have decent internet so they can attend via Skype or several other ways? When UA is the third highest state funded university, something is seriously wrong.

    • Your statement is as naive as you seem to be.

    • Rebecca! Dear Friend ?. We can discuss this further over a glass of wine later… you already have heard me state most of this……
      The Republican Party is not ‘remiss in acknowledging’. – they are facing reality! I am a UAA graduate, my husband is a UAA graduate, we have a daughter that just graduated from UAF. We strongly support the UA system, including financially. But we also see need for some serious fiscal adaptation. Our university receives the highest percentage of state subsidy of any public state university in the nation. I believe this has to a degree made us a bit too dependent, soft, and has stifled innovation. We can do better. We need very high energy and visionary leadership in UA that can think outside the gravy train box and find new ways to fund, draw in more research programs and help propel UA into improved independence and an even better dynamic future.

      • UA is, after all, a land grant system for a reason, and that reason isn’t to turn all its land into wilderness.

  • @Rebecca Kenworthy, I have to wonder where those with UAF’s accounting expertise went, as they sure didn’t go to the legislature!

    • True that.

  • Would it be rude to ask Peoples Academician Jim Johnsen to resign…
    Remember, Johnsen’s leadership managed Alaska’s third-rate college racket into falling enrollment, low graduation rates, and a program that lost its national accreditation…
    …crowned by Johnsen’s immortal words: “I’m not going to negotiate.”
    So Alaska must be burdened by a college culture driven by Johnsen’s leadership of which the best that can be said is: “Resign ourselves to economic recession”?
    No… no way… Go the hell away Mr. Johnsen, you seem to have done enough damage. The problem can be fixed but not by, or with, you and your overpriced pals.

  • Donald Braun’s assertion that Alaska’s three legged support industries are oil, fishing and tourism is incorrect.. The three legs of the stool are actually oil, mining and tourism. Fisheries represents a net drain on the state revenue picture.

  • The budget cuts are necessary. While it is great to fund higher education many great comments were made that have very salient points. There are ways to trim a budget that make sense and living within means is essential to survival. We don’t need extravagant things to have a great education system. Perhaps people have forgotten these facts along the way. I believe we can make budget cuts that are sensible and critical to a sustainable state. We always hear things needs to be done for x,y and Z yet we rarely hear about trimming a budget so dramatically (thank you Governor Dunleavy for starting this conversation) and to Suzanne for good reporting.

    • Amen! Agree on all points! Kudos to Suzanne and also good conversation.

  • The development of the Bakkan formation and it’s neighborhood has caused grief for all oil dependent governments bringing OPEC to the verge of collapse. Alaska’s economic woes are tied directly to that. Will the be shutting down North Dakota fields anytime soon or is it time to diversify.


    I find it curious that people that understand the oil industry so well don’t understand what has driven the price of oil where it is and why places like Alaska are on hard times.

    • It’s the same dynamic we had in the mid-Eighties. The US, GB, and Norway brought on The North Slope and North Sea oil provinces and employed gigantic uplift rates to flood the market with oil and break the OPEC price paradigm. It worked and produced a couple of decades of low oil prices and prosperity around the World except in the oil provinces. If the AOGCC had functioned as anything other than a sinecure for patronage hires, Alaska would have found a way to throttle back our production. At our peak production we were producing more oil than West Coast refineries could handle so it had to go to Panama, be off-loaded into a pipeline, and re-loaded into another tanker and shopped to refineries on the Gulf and East Coasts. All the handling made the oil worth less than the cost of transporting it so the State was producing millions of barrels of oil and making nothing on them.

      The big difference for State government between then and now is that then most of the ramp up in State spending from oil revenue had been in Capital spending. The Capital budget went away except for a little for federal matches. Between stopping capital projects and oil industry layoffs, the private economy all but collapsed giving Anchorage a negative CPI for awhile. The State’s operating budget stayed pretty stable and we had few program cuts and very few actual layoffs, and frankly most of those were constructive discharges in which the budget was used as an excuse to get rid of somebody some manager wanted gone for other reasons.

      This time when oil prices went stratospheric, nobody remembered how our “Blue-eyed Arab” days of the early Eighties came to a screeching halt in 1985. We started it in Murkowski; actually I started it by putting some serious money on the table to get all the unions under contract before the 2004 Election. The last thing the Administration wanted was thousands of State employees in the streets singing songs and waving signs and wanting to vote Democrat. Then once the Sarah Palin show started, we were ramping up spending to counter her promises to various constituencies. Then she became Governor and she and the Legislature just went on a spending spree and Parnell continued the spending spree. In addition to general increases in the pay plans, there’ve been all sorts of range changes and advanced steps and all sorts of fancy new classifications’ and the net result is most of the workforce is making half again more than they were making when I left in 2006. Then there is the dramatically increased program spending in DHSS and DEED, both of which are like pouring money down a rathole. Of course, the major shareholders in the House Majority are unionized public employees, the healthcare racket, and the education racket, so they’re going to scratch and claw to keep every possible dime in that operating budget and they really don’t care if they have to take everybody’s PFD or impose additional taxes to do it. The reality is that the Governor and the Senate are going to have to accept a budget that the House Majority will buy off on, or they’re going to have to face a government shutdown on July 1st.

      • I don’t disagree with much there Art, I think I could make a case that teachers salaries have been largely stagnant from the early 80’s. I think the greatest generator of bloat has been health care but this shouldn’t be news to anyone.


        As far as an economic downturn, when the money from the oil field doesn’t find its way into our economy for whatever reason there will be an economic downturn. Picking at Johnson for stating that obvious fact is silly.


        I’d like to point out that University core credits cannot be transferred between campuses, essentially giving us multiple systems of curricula.

        • Teacher salaries may have been generally stagnant, though the step and column system just like the State’s merit step system means you’re going to have a personal services cost increase every year, but the cost of the State’s education racket has skyrocketed.

          My wife was the Administrative Services Manager of Military and Veterans’ Affairs when DMVA did the “joint venture” with UAS to build a combination gym for UAS and Armory for DMVA. I could count on about a half hour rant every day when she got home over dealing with the frustrations of working with the University; no internal controls, no regulars systems, no concern for process or for costs. They literally believed that as academics that sort of stuff just didn’t apply to them.

          • One of the things I’ve observed as I’ve stated before is the ever increasing cost of administrative overhead. One 0bama can cost us untold fortunes by simply increasing the administrative costs from Special Ed to EPA compliance in our agencies. Then we get follow on bloat in middle management that doesn’t go away just because we’ve elected President Trump or a fiscally responsible Governor.


            Cross the board cuts will always hit the people closest to the actual provision of the service, I know first hand. Cut DOT and it’s going to be the plow driver and the pothole patcher that catch the axe first because the paperwork MUST flow to Washington. They need to be targeted cuts with cooperation from the POTUS to reduce the administrative cancer.

      • Art, you have to include in here that Sarah Palin also increased taxes on Oil cos. That didn’t endear her to those Oil cos. but made it possible to increase spending (even on big PFD).

  • Ok, Dr. Johnsen either needs to wrap his dear head around reality and get to work thinking outside the box or perhaps it is time to move on and being on someone a bit more adventurous to take the reins.

  • Jim Johnsen needs to go back and take Econ 101. He’s a cheerleader for the Left, much like Brian Rogers was, not an academician or a realist. UAF, UAA, UAS are second or third rate learning institutions. Too much effort over the last three decades on developing rural cultural studies, Title 9 doctrine, and all things PC. Far less emphasis on educational basics that help people come to rational decisions through critical analysis. Former professors have actually told me that their students of today don’t come close to the skills developed by their students 30 and 40 years ago. And that’s why so many Alaskan youngsters leave Alaska to attend schools in the Lower 48. Ths UA system needs a complete overhaul. The day of reckoning is finally here.

  • This guy is a clown. Is he serious? This is the head of UAA? That is more frightening than any budget cut. Good riddance. Oh, and fine by me if you take some of the population with you. Let’s pare it down to people that actually can add and subtract and give a sh*t about the future of the state. I can’t get the old Billy Preston song out of my head “nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin!

  • @I ART LAUGHING. Thread got too narrow. Go look at a piece I wrote here a year or two ago called “The Unkindest Cut” in which I talk about general decrements. Across the board budget cuts are the dumbest thing a government can do. All the cuts will be calculated to cause the maximum harm to the people.

    • I’ll look that up. I used to think that the cuts were calculated too. However because funding is so tied to administration it is very hard to make the case to chop the paper managers. And of course those people are generally higher on the food chain and closer and dearer to management than the folks out in the weeds.


      Not to get too esoteric but we see this decadence in the decline of recorded civilization. Why be a relatively poor producer in the provinces when we can move to Rome for free bread and circuses? It’s always about centralization and “efficiency”. Nobody wants to be the fish counter in some remote village out West.

  • Like it or not, distance education, online courses, VR and AI are in UA’s future. Properly done, they can get better results with half the spending. A server in a room is a lot easier to maintain than a brick and mortar campus. Others are doing it – MITx, Georgia Tech, Arizona State, edX, Coursera, Great Courses. Cheers –

    • A lot of good schools are in the space and we should do an RFP to explore outsourcing the best. We are not capable of building something as well are those who are already successful in competing the space. What is in the best interest of our students and the SOA versus employees?

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