Why did UAA Faculty Senate vote to suspend UA president?




On Oct. 4, the UAA Faculty Senate passed a resolution asking the Board of Regents to suspend President Jim Johnsen. 

Why did we pass this resolution? – Because last week our regional accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) sent a letter to our Board and President, warning them that they were endangering the accreditation of our three universities.

The UAA Faculty Senate has been sounding the alarm for months that this might happen. Our warnings were typically ignored. 

How did we reach this point? Let’s review some history and disregarded American theory.

All of our public university systems in America began as single-campus institutions. One board of regents or trustees governed them. Administrators were drawn from faculty and sometimes did double-duty as full-time professors. The campuses grew, then sprouted branch campuses, then became university systems. 

How did those states respond to growth? They applied a tried and true American principle. They decentralized authority and allowed the constituent universities greater independence and self-government.

Our American system rests upon the cornerstone of self-government and the belief that if you give people authority and responsibility, they will do a better job of governing themselves than faraway bureaucrats, our modern princelings. Our founders believed that people who are closer to the scenes of action are better informed and can make better decisions about matters that directly concern them.

When delegates to our federal and state conventions drafted their constitutions, they confronted a practical problem. They knew that many communities might not be ready for self-government at that moment. But they foresaw that those communities would grow and mature, and that they ought to be able to cast off outside rule.

What did they do? The framers of the Constitution of the United States, following the Northwest Ordinance, provided for future growth in Article IV, sections 3 and 4. People in the territories first are governed by Congress, but once admitted as states, they graduate to self-government.

Our state constitution also provides for anticipated growth. The delegates to the Alaska constitutional convention many times expressed concerns about the future organization of the state as communities grew. So, they inserted Article X, which provides a pathway for maturing communities to claim that right to govern themselves when they grew to maturity.

When our university system grew, the Board of Regents followed this American principle. They decentralized. Beginning in the 1970s they permitted UAF, UAA, and UAS to become separately accredited universities. 

That decision was momentous. According to accreditation standards, once universities are accredited, they may not be merged into another without the consent and participation of the faculty. Hence, when the UA Regents permitted separately accredited universities, they gave up a power that cannot be taken back unilaterally. They permanently entrusted the universities with greater independence.

If the UAA Faculty believed that consolidation was good higher education policy right now, we would consent to the wishes of the statewide administration and the Board of Regents. But we believe that consolidation and central planning – which reverses the reforms of the 1970s – is bad policy and will harm higher education in this state. Our university system has grown more since the 1970s and calls for another round of reform in the direction of decentralization, not reform in the opposite direction.

The support of consolidation by Alaska conservatives is especially surprising. Have you now become the advocates of central planning? Why do you think you drive an American SUV today rather than an East German Trabant? You used to believe that competition was healthy and good. You used to recognize that central planning never delivers quality or cost-savings. 

How can you possibly trust the promises of the UA statewide administration and the Board of Regents, that under their greater command and control, the universities will be more efficient? Just look at their record of financial management: the highest dependency on state appropriations than any other public system of higher education in America; a $1billion deferred maintenance bill; a paltry $200M endowment (not counting the land trust). 

At the hearing of the State Affairs Committee of the Alaska Senate on Sept. 20, the UAA Faculty, students and alumni explained why we believe that decentralization will improve UAF, UAA and UAS, and will lead to greater financial efficiency. For those reasons the UAA Faculty have indicated our refusal to consent to consolidation in dozens of ways. We recently polled ourselves, asking directly, “Do you favor the single accredited one university model as presented by President Johnsen?” – 83% of polled UAA faculty said no, 7% said yes. 

But our views have been grossly misrepresented. Several weeks ago Alaska media repeated the misleading spin fed to them by a contractor hired by UA statewide. It was uncritically reported that the views of faculty were mixed concerning consolidation. The basis for these reports? An online survey open to ballot-stuffing that asked respondents ambiguous questions, e.g., whether they liked the idea of a seamless experience in higher ed. If you answered yes, then the contractor counted you among supporters of consolidation.

Garbage. Many like myself who favor a decentralized university system and oppose consolidation could easily answer yes to such a question. Who doesn’t like puppies and rainbows? But if you do, the contractor marked you down in favor of the administration’s plans. 

But that is how this UA president rolls and now our accreditor is aware. He manufactures the appearance of support and quietly threatens dissent, in the pursuit of his beloved vision of “One UA” that will harm higher education in this state for generations.

Forrest Nabors is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at UAA, and has served on the UAA Faculty Senate since 2012. Read an earlier op-ed by him at this link.


    • I can understand, Lance, and I don’t like it. How can you not see that you and Alaska conservatives are being conned? More centralization will not save costs. The quickest way to save costs is to eliminate statewide right now – that’s $50M+ to a unit that brings no value, and in fact, interferes with the better management of the universities. Then give the universities responsibility and authority. They will make sensible cuts and will be free to pursue new revenue streams. Right now, they’re hogtied. They can do neither without permission from statewide, which is out-of-touch and hungry for more control.

    • Lance, are you saying that because Fairbanks has a mayor and an assembly, we do not need those at Anchorage, Juneau, or any other Alaskan city?

      • He’s not saying that at all, Dave. Quit comparing apples and oranges. What Lance is saying is that by exporting the same product through 17 different distribution centers is going to eat up all of your revenue sources. This is a business model made for disaster. Centralize your distribution centers and bring the customers to that source point. Period.

        • No there aren’t 17 redundant sets of administrators at each campus.

          Break this down and think about it for one college. Suppose you consolidate the business schools at uaf and uaa. Savings includes at most one Dean but costs go up and revenues down in several categories. Careful analysis of this scenario was done by Dan White while he was VP of Statewide about 3 years ago and he unequivocally found centralization would only reduce efficiencies and increase costs.

          Every campus needs some administration, the question is how much and with what authority. How many private companies set up branches in other cities or states and don’t have local administrators empowered to make local decisions?

          Certain services can be shared (like accounting and he) and others outsourced (eg legal)

          Cut the statewide unit by 48 million and let the campuses choose what to specialize in and how to cut costs.

  1. I will conceed the point that President Johnsen has done a horrible job at managing the UA System.
    I find it intriguing when people of a certain political bent use a principal that they do not subscribe to in an attempt to garner support. While clutching at their pearls with one hand and their wallets with the other, these supporters of continued wasteful spending want us to believe they have seen the light and central planning is bad.
    We have just a little over 700,000 residents in this state. UA has around 30,000 full and part time students enrolled, with about 7,000 employed by the system.
    To try and claim a bureaucracy with about 7,000 employees at three main campuses that serves around 30,000 full and part time students (or less than 5% of the population) can’t be operated more responsibly with a downsized staff strains credulity. We are not talking about a centralized bureaucracy like communist China as some have claimed. We are talking about a small system with a small number of employees. All the wailing and gnashing of teeth about how centralization will destroy these campuses is just nonsense.

    • Steve, you are missing the point. I agree that you can streamline and save money.. The question is, how do you do it? You’ve bought the argument that “centralizing” is a money-saver and it is not.

      • Forrest,
        If you are for downsizing and removing the entrenched bureaucracy then I am all ears. If you want to get rid of the waste that is inherent in our university system then yes, please let’s do so. Creating upwards of twenty small fiefdoms with paid for out of the public trough is not the way to save money. With around 7,000 employees serving about 30,000 full and part time students we only need a singular bureaucracy overseeing the small number of employees and number of sometime students and handful of full time students.
        Seriously the entire UA system does not even match the top 50 university enrollment in the US, and half of the students are part time.
        San Diego State is a close analog to the UA system in that it has a similar budget but more students, it also has less than half the staff as the ENTIRE UA system. Their results are also far better than the ENTIRE UA system.
        The system you are working under is broken and entirely too expensive.

        • “The system you are working under is broken and entirely too expensive.”

          I agree. I am chair of a Faculty Senate committee that has been studying and advocating reform for a long time.

          The object should not be “downsizing.” It should be 1) producing better education and research and 2) costing the state treasury less.

          I can and have demonstrated the wastefulness of our system in stronger terms than you do here.

          We disagree on how to achieve financial efficiency.

          • Well it appears that centralization is off the table for a few years at least. No sense in beating that half dead horse.
            Now, moving forward, as far as removing the statewide administration let’s get that going so we can cut costs to reasonable levels. Decentralize and allow those who cannot tread water sink, but let’s not throw good money after bad while doing so.
            I appreciate the conversation, it just goes to show that there are still some who can disagree without being disagreeable.

  2. Any Government Funded Education is Corporate Socialism. Privately Funded Education is Free Enterprise. Art. 12 Sec. 8 of The Constitution of The State of Alaska, “The enumeration in this Constitution of specified powers shall not be construed as limiting the powers of the State.” I’m sorry but limiting the powers of the State is the only purpose of any Constitution. Otherwise it has Unlimited Powers which is a Communist/Fascist/Nazi form of Dictatorship. Seymour Marvin Mills Jr. sui juris

  3. Nicely done Forrest. While I agree with your view on the values we place on local self governance (decentralization), even if seems in the short run to be less efficient than centralization, (thought I don’t believe it is less efficient in the long run), I’d enjoy seeing you further develop the concepts of faculty leadership and the role they play in student success, research endeavors, and community engagement that seem to be take over by the administration. If localized self governance is a value of our political and organizational forms in America that rolls up through elected representation to the national level, I think there is missing and and equal tenet of faculty involvement, representation and leadership in the university organization that makes up the controlling voice in that local and executive governance.

  4. Why did the UA board of regents decide to spent $495,000 on their plight for money? Spend like drunken sailors, expect someone else to pick up their tab. The issue- UA has caviar dreams with 2 nickles in their pocket reality.

  5. Without touching upon the merits of UA restructuring, the author’s effort to equate a university to a democratic form of government is absolute nonsense. University faculty and staff are NOT “citizens” or “voters,” they are employees. It is appropriate to have ways for the faculty and staff to have input into the restructuring process, but conflating this into some kind of “consent of the governed” approach is delusional. If the UA faculty and staff want support from Alaskans, they need to purge this false notion of entitlement from their systems really, really fast.

    • Google “shared governance”. Faculty are not like employees at, say, McDonalds. And what is wrong with workplace democracy? Often times workers have a better understanding of the workplace than do the owners. Especially if those owners are living in another state or another country.

      • The owners of the UA system are the people of Alaska. If you want to own the university system then you need to accept the financial responsibility of ownership and remove the line item in the state budget going towards keeping it afloat. The owners of UA do not live in another state or country.

        • My second point was about workplace democracy generally. I think most of us have had to make hard compromises at work. Long hours, time away from family, carrying out policies that made no sense to us . . . And when we someone with better working conditions that we’ve experienced it’s normal to feel envy. But how should we respond to feelings of envy — by bringing the other guy down or lifting ourselves up?
          Instead of trying to make everyone equally miserable — I had to obey my boss, you guys should also obey — we should be thinking about to give more employees a say.
          In this instance workplace democracy worked — employees, like this author, prevented a half-baked destructive plan from being implemented.
          On location — no the owners don’t live in China. But the needs of Juneau are not the needs of Fairbanks. Imagine a statewide program in native languages.

    • Whose employee, JMark? I would be delighted to be an employee of the people of the state of Alaska. But the President of the university system and the Board of Regents believe that we are their employees, not yours, because they do not believe that they are accountable to you. They think that they have the last word on everything concerning the university, and are beyond the reach of the legislature or governor.

      • See Article VII, Section 3 of the Alaska Constitution: “The University of Alaska shall be governed by a board of regents. The regents shall be appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by a majority of the members of the legislature in joint session. The board shall, in accordance with law, formulate policy and appoint the president of the university. He shall be the executive officer of the board.”

        That provision controls here. The provisions of law that provide for appointment of the Board of Regents are fairly clear. I would prefer that the terms be considerably shorter, but the law provides otherwise. Yeah, it is unpleasant, but each provision of the Alaska Constitution speaks with equal force and the conflicts must be harmonized.

        As to your final point, I think you and I may be in agreement. The Governor’s powers extend to appointments to the board and through the power to veto appropriations; the Legislature, through the appropriation power and the ability to confirm, or failure to confirm the Governor’s appointees to the Regents. Here’s a good read: https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution-conan/article-1/section-1/separation-of-powers-and-checks-and-balances

        I appreciate the effort to extend the notion of democratic governance into the academic sphere but it simply does not work here and is an overreach. A useful read on this topic is “Thinking in Time – the Uses of History for Decision-Makers” by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, 1986. Both authors are/were on the faculty at Harvard.

        All of the above being said, I consider myself to be a strong supporter of the University and strong academic programs that adhere to principle and support free expression and free inquiry. See the Chicago Principles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_principles

        I am no fan of the bloated UA “Statewide” bureaucracy.

      • And FWIIW: I greatly appreciate your views and involvement in this messy process. As noted, I do not agree with some of your views, but their presentation is valuable.

        • I agree. I appreciate the information provided by Dr. Nabors and the dialogue that has resulted in this forum. My understanding was that both positions would be articulated and presented to the UA Board of Regents and the public. Now it appears that process has been short-circuited due to the position of NWCCU.
          I would like to see the details of Dr. Nabors position of the current UA model without the central UA administration – how it would work, how much money would be saved in the short term and how state funding could be reduced in the long term.
          Likewise I would like to see the details and similar costs of the consolidated UA model. In my opinion the University of Alaska is too small for three separate, independent campuses; maybe 2 (UAF and UAA) having separate programs with UAS an independent satellite of one of the two., and other rural campuses consolidated under one of the two.
          Administration costs definitely need to be reduced under either system.

  6. Thank you for the perspective, Forrest. State of Alaska OMB Director Barnhill pointed out that UAF spends more than twice as much as UAA to educate a student. UAF already consumes more state treasury support than UAA – with a fraction of the students. And Statewide UA consumes millions and does not educate any students. Does “One UA” mean that everyone now becomes more like the highest cost institution that is, after all, the “flagship” university? Unfortunately, a lot of bad fiscal habits were formed on the West Ridge in Fairbanks over the fat years of generous federal and state funding.

    Add to that the fact that several UAA and UAS folks have attempted cost saving measures, only to have their hands tied by the Fairbanks-based state-wide organization. There is great danger in simple consolidation, particularly given the current leadership. It is most likely to increase costs per student, believe it or not, just like when the community campuses were folded into the Universities.

    It is also more likely that three institutions, with a level of state support compared to similarly situated peers in other states, will entrepreneurially figure out how to thrive. Or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if the community campuses could do better decentralized, as well. And I don’t hear Forrest asking for increased state support – just the freedom to address the challenges locally.

  7. I, too, appreciate the fact that the professor will join in civil discourse with conservatives/Republicans; most of the university crowd view us as subhuman. If you’re a conservative/Republican in a UA classroom, don’t let the instructor/professor find out. I owe Professor Nabors a read and review of his book; it has languished on my nightstand too long.

    Sorry, Adam, faculty ARE just like employees at McDonald’s; they’re bought for a bundle of skills to do a job specified by the employers. The only difference is that their bundle of skills costs more; these days usually far too much. “Faculty governance” like academic freedom are just self-indulgent privileges that naïve BORs and management of academic institutions have foolishly conferred on their employees. Of course any responsible management will have some means of getting feedback from employees; you have to keep them at least sullen but not mutinous, but the biggest problems I had in dealing with State employee unions were not about wages, hours, and conditions, their legitimate concern, but rather about their wanting to control policy and personnel, which are none of their business. And before you start, Adam, much of the State’s Executive Branch workforce is just as well-credentialed as the UA workforce, plus most of them have actually done something other than stand in front of a classroom.

    A succession of Governors, BORs, and Legislatures have looked at the UA as nothing more than a way to spread money around and provide sinecures to favorites, mostly failed and former Democrat politicians. Alaska doesn’t have the population to support even one legitimate university campus, so we have seventeen to spread the money around and to make sure that people who require continuing education for their jobs, e.g., teachers, don’t have to travel far to get it. I don’t think I ever hired anyone for their UA credentials though I hired a few with UA undergrad and graduate work or law school elsewhere. The only part of the UA I ever looked to for intellectual product was ISER for awhile until UA management allowed it to become just another sinecure for failed and former Democrat politicians.

    The reality is that Alaska has lawyers, social sciences/studies majors, and MBA/MPAs coming out of its ears. What we don’t have is anybody who can teach in the Alaska environment, who can take care of the aged, sick, and injured, who can fix anything, build anything, or run anything. Hell, we hardly have anybody who can speak, spell, and write or do basic math. I found that I had to hire someone with at least a bachelor’s degree to have any likelihood of getting a complete English sentence and paragraphs required post-graduate study. If governors and legislators put half the thought into who was on the BOR as they put into who gets elected to city councils, the UA would produce a far different and far more useful product. The UA needs to provide a workforce for Alaska, not just provide a job for the people who work for the UA.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply.
      On faculty governance — sure, I’m happy to say that people in the executive branch have advanced degrees and curious minds. The question then is: do they have the relevant knowledge. The surgeon has nothing to contribute to the repair of a diesel engine and the diesel mechanic doesn’t belong in the operating room. The executive with an education degree likely doesn’t know what a geologist needs to get his work done and needs to at least listen to geologist. I’m not saying the executive should have no say but, well, that governance should be shared.
      North Dakota has a similar population and has a decent University system. Imagine what kind of writing you would be dealing with if we didn’t have a university system at all . . .
      But at the end of the day it’s evidence that matters, right? We all have our theories, we put them into action and we look at the results. We have universities that are run the way you would like — the employees are treated like employees at McDonalds. University of Phoenix, University of Southern New Hampshire, Corinthian Colleges and Full Sail University. And those institutions are jokes. Except the joke is on the poor kid who blew his GI bond on a Phoenix diploma. Meanwhile, UA is the world leader in Arctic research.

      • And there are maybe a couple of dozen jobs in the world in arctic science and to get one you have to be vetted by the politically correct crowd that wants you burned at the stake if you don’t believe the World is ending due to “climate change” in twelve years.

        Flash Adam; the degrees from those fancy schools are jokes too. Outside the STEM areas, and too often these days even there, a college degree is a participation certificate that allows you membership in the “degreed” social club. The overpaid chancellors and presidents of the elite schools should build a gold statue of Mr. Griggs, the man who brought “Griggs v. Duke Power” and put an end to skills testing for employment. Once “a degree” became the minimum qualification for most white collar jobs, the floodgates opened. The schools created degree programs for people with the IQ of a rock and as long as somebody paid and somebody showed up occasionally, somebody heard “Pomp and Circumstance.”

        • “the politically correct crowd that wants you burned at the stake”
          Oh yes. Come out as a climate change ‘skeptic’ and you will need to suffer life as a frequent guest on Fox News, to be paid to publish articles and be forced to take a slice of the more than 600 million dollars in funding that is given out to denialists every year. I think we can all agree that experience is remarkably similar to that of being burned alive.

        • As to the rest. As a former employer who valued writing ability you know if you want to hire someone who can think for themselves, can comprehend your instructions, can speak for the company without embarrassing both themselves and you, the employer, you want to hire someone with a liberal arts degree. Sure, get the STEM people in the lab. And let the English majors write your reports. Which is probably what you did, right? I doubt that you let the lab guys answer the emails . . .
          You may not like the social club but that “entry card” explains why college pays for itself. On average, college grads from all majors make more money than those who never attended. That money makes it way back into the economy and keeps other people employed.

          • You couldn’t keep the mask on long, could you? It’s such a strain for self-styled elites to engage with people who might watch FOX news and who think that most of what acadaemia hawks is utter bullshit digestible only by mind-numbed children.

            And that degree really isn’t worth much any more once the loans are netted out; lots of studies majors saying, “one shot or two?”

        • How’s that old saying go? ” . . . and if you don’t have the facts call him a son of . . .”
          Nice try Art. We see what you are doing. Responding to one sentence, distorting the meaning and putting words in someone’s mouth.
          For the record I have all the respect in the world for people — including those you have contempt for. Apparently you just don’t like UA grads, amirite? For record I respect Fox News watchers but I have nothing but contempt for FN decision to distort the consensus on climate science. They are lying to you.
          Just as I can have respect for you but have no respect for the trick you just tried to pull 😉

    • Thoughtful comments, Art. Most educated Alaskans can’t even balance a personal checkbook, let alone understand a comprehensive business model or budget a finite revenue stream.

    • Art, you have failed to consider the scientific and engineering programs in UAF and UAA. They provide Alaska with valuable, non-political resources. Surely the state values those programs.

      • And those programs produce how many employees out of a workforce of about 350K? I know that natural resources policy and management is more politics than science and the politics is getting into the mix somewhere. I’ll give engineering a bit of a bye since it is harder to inject politics into 2+2=4, but there are plenty in academia who would say that 5 isn’t wrong, it’s just different, at least until the bridge collapsed. Then they’d blame it on Republicans and the lack of funding.

      • My son earned a very fancy STEM degree from UAF but then received a good job offer that has taken him far from Alaska. It all works together – we need to develop our own talent but then also have economic/policies that result in the creation of jobs that produce something. Without economic opportunities, the STEM education is wasted. Frankly, if we leave it solely up to the liberal arts and social science folks, the entire economy will collapse.

  8. Perhaps if the members of the UAA faculty senate had done their jobs over the past years instead of indulging every whim, they might not be blaming the wrong person for their failures?

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