Leading on the Edge of Change: Climate, Education & Politics in Alaska with James Johnsen

Leading on the Edge of Change: Climate, Education & Politics in Alaska with James Johnsen

Lecture | October 24 | 4-5:30 p.m. | Faculty Club, Seaborg Room

Speaker/Performer: James Johnsen, President, University of Alaska

Sponsor: Center for Studies in Higher Education

The University of Alaska is the state's sole public system of higher education and a world leader in Arctic research. In response to unprecedented 41 percent state funding cut enacted by gubernatorial budget veto in 2019, the University mounted a major advocacy campaign, declared financial exigency, and began planning for organizational restructuring to include consolidation of the system's several universities and termination of tenured faculty. The governor's veto was rationalized on grounds that the state was in a fiscal crisis and that the university was too costly, in particular its research activities. After a second legislative session and continued public opposition to the governor's veto, the legislature reinstated most of the vetoed funds. At the same time, under pressure to resolve the funding issue in lieu of a second veto, the university and the governor agreed to a three year "compact" that moderated budget reductions and committed the governor and the university to support a number of high priority initiatives to strengthen higher education in the state. University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen will present an overview of the case and an analysis of the implications for higher education in Alaska and in the nation.


In the last 6 months, the University of Alaska has been featured on the cover of the Chronicle of Higher Education twice; many additional articles in the Chronicle, in Inside Higher Education, in national publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post; in almost daily front page coverage in Alaska’s daily papers and political blogs; and in minute by minute submissions on comment sections of the online press and social media.

I would much prefer to report that all that coverage was due to the world leading research—measured by publications and citations—we do on climate change, which is happening at twice the rate in the Arctic as it is on the rest of the planet. Our faculty are taking excellent advantage of our role as America’s only Arctic university:

  • To study the causes and effects of melting glaciers and permafrost, and of ocean acidification and its effects on our world class fisheries and abundant marine mammal habitat,
  • To investigate the dynamic relationship between snow cover and wildfires,
  • To understand earthquakes and volcanoes in one of the world’s most seismically active regions
  • To explore—with more drones than any university in the nation—how to manage wildfires, count wildlife, monitor critical infrastructure (like our 800 mile long oil pipeline), and support mine safety
  • To study the effects of China’s atmospheric pollution on the Arctic,
  • To probe—at our NASA funded rocket range—the aurora borealis and its effects on telecommunications, and our ability to track incoming missiles from hostile states close by (and “no” Sarah Palin could not see Russia from her doorstep, but with our technology, the University of Alaska can!)
  • To research the national security threats and the economic opportunities that result from the opening Arctic Ocean,
  • To develop and apply new ways to integrate multiple power sources—solar, wind, tidal, coal, diesel, and batteries—in micro electricity grids (Alaska is NOT part of the US energy grid)
  • To study the integrated health system of people, wildlife we hunt and fish, and the environment we live in
  • To deepen our understanding of our world by including the powerful “ways of knowing” developed over the last 15,000 years by Alaska’s Native people.

Or maybe all that coverage was about the fact that we were the first university to proactively disclose systemwide Title IX violations and to propose a protocol for treating “me too” claims.

Or that 20 percent of our students are Alaska Native, compared to just 15 percent of the State’s population, and that many of the leaders of Alaska’s thriving Alaska Native owned for-profit corporations—several of which doing over a billion dollars in annual revenue—are led by our alumni.

Or perhaps that we have doubled the number of engineers and nurses we graduate, reducing the need to import skilled labor from “outside”, as we refer to you all in the lower 48.

Or that our faculty are disclosing inventions and forming private companies to commercialize their research at record breaking rates, for us anyway.

Or that we serve the largest geographic area of any university system in the nation, with three universities and thirteen community campuses—1,300 miles from the Ketchikan campus in SE to the Kotzebue campus in the Northwest…half of the campuses are not accessible by land…For reference, Alaska is more than 4 times the size of California, in area….you have 56 times more people

Or that we have created an interactive website that depicts a thriving, innovative, fun, successful University of Alaska in 2040, inspired by provocative questions like What If? and Why Not?

But alas, no.

Instead, all that coverage was about:

  • our Governor’s decision to propose on February 14 a 41 percent state funding cut in a single year (on top of the 15 percent cut taken over the previous several years, and 1,200 fewer employees)…while the single biggest expenditure proposed in the Governor’s budget (37%) was a $3,000 dividend for every resident of the state, none of whom pay any state taxes…and while the state has more than $65 billion in a rainy day savings account called the Alaska Permanent Fund.
  • the legislature’s decision to restore most of that cut
  • the Governor’s decision on June 28 to veto the legislature’s budget back down to the 41 percent cut and his staff’s attempt to defund university research
  • the legislature’s inability to muster the three fourths majority needed to override the Governor’s veto, despite the university’s privately funded advocacy campaign, all the while, we were:
    • planning for the worst, including taking the drastic step of declaring financial exigency (which under our policy and the faculty union contract, would allow the university to terminate tenured faculty without a program review process and with just two months advance notice)
    • suffering a three notch downgrade of our credit rating to the lowest of any state university in the nation
    • reviewing the possibility of consolidating duplicative academic units, so instead of three schools of education, one at each university, one school that would serve students across the three universities and even at the community campuses
    • seeing a rise in internecine conflict over which university ought to bear the brunt of the budget cut
    • consideration of a single institutional accreditation (rather than 3), which would enable a larger share of cost reduction to come from administrative overhead than from academic programs and student services
    • the loss of quality faculty, staff, and students to other universities in more fiscally healthy parts of the country
    • another legislative appropriation to restore most of the Governor’s deep cut
    • our successful negotiation of a “compact” with the Governor, which halved the governor’s cut from 41 percent in a single year to 20 percent over three years
    • but, as I expected—once responsibility for the budget cuts, even though they were much less severe than originally proposed by the Governor, shifted from the Governor to the university—the  focus shifted to opposition to to the Governor to opposition to how the Board of Regents and I were approaching the cuts. This opposition manifested itself in no-confidence votes, a divisive social media campaign, leveraging of our regional accreditor, and focused pressure on the Board of Regents to back off its look at system level restructuring.

Where to from here, asks the Chronicle in its recent cover article?

To answer that question, I need to provide a brief primer on education in Alaska, followed by one on our politics.


Life in Alaska is expensive. Health care, energy, transportation, food, and education costs lead the nation.

This is especially the case in rural Alaska, most of which is “off the grid” and accessible only by water or air.  Education is especially costly in rural Alaska due to the cost of those other factors (energy, internet connectivity, etc). Rural education issues also are fraught with challenges high teacher turnover, high unemployment, the difficult transition from a subsistence economy to a cash economy, more than a century of colonial suppression of language and culture, and out migration of rural people to the cities. 

At the same time, however, rural education has made great strides over the last several decades, in part through innovative collaborations with the University. The Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, for example, reaches into the seventh grade to build pathways for rural students through high school and the university to good jobs in the state’s leading companies. Another success story involves bringing Alaska Native students into the teaching and health care professions—a “grow your own” plan—that benefits those students, their employers, and their communities. And in a partnership with Alaska Native corporation education foundations and tribes, a strong push to revitalize indigenous languages is rebuilding a sense of pride and confidence among the people, with increased educational attainment an added benefit.

Lest we think education issues are the exclusive province of rural Alaska, not so. The state’s largest city—Anchorage—is home to over 100 languages. The state’s college going rate ranks last in the nation. Just 33 percent of an average Alaskans ninth grade class will go onto college from high school. Whereas across the nation the correlation between educational attainment is very high, in Alaska it is not. You might say we are a “low education/high income” state. That’s largely due to high paying jobs in resource development and construction that do not require advanced education. And while we have made great progress in growing our own engineers and nurses, we still have challenges in meeting workforce needs, especially for teachers.

A description of education in Alaska would not be complete without a description of the University of Alaska. Established in 1917 as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines and in 1935 as the University of Alaska, the university—as in many states—predated statehood. The Alaska Constitution, drafted in 1956 at the university, established the university as a single corporate and legal entity with a Board of Regents whose duty is to govern the university, hire the president, and set policies. In the mid-1970s the university established branches in Anchorage and Juneau and in 1988 merged the 13 community colleges into the three universities. Today, the university system includes three universities, 13 community campuses, and 19 academic colleges and schools serving 26,000 students. UA Anchorage is a comprehensive metropolitan university with our largest enrollment. Its distinctions include our only school of nursing, a highly respected social and economic research unit, and our nationally recognized Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. UA Fairbanks is a research university which leads the world in Arctic research. Its areas of distinction include a wide variety of research focus areas, graduate education, a wide variety of on-line degree programs, and highly respected programs in rural and indigenous studies. UA Southeast prides itself on teacher education, programs related to its maritime location, and relationships with tribal groups in its region.

You may find these comparative data interesting. The national average four year completion rate is 34 percent. Alaska’s is 10 percent. The national 6 year rate is 64 percent. Ours is 31 percent.  The national cost per completion is $66,436. Here in California it’s $79,310. In Alaska it’s $103,823.


Alaska is a red state, though a majority of registered voters are Independents. All three members of Congress are republican, though they do not always vote as a block, particularly on social issues. The Governor is republican with a somewhat libertarian bent. A former State Senator and retired school administrator, his platform in 2018 was for paying out a “full” dividend to all Alaskans, stepping up resource development, paring down state government, and not adding new taxes. He won over former U.S. Senator Mark Begich and incumbent independent Governor Bill Walker. Walker actually dropped out of the race just a few weeks prior to election day as a result of his Lieutenant Governor’s resignation in the face of a sexual harassment complaint.

Once in office, citing falling oil prices and lower state revenue projections, the Governor’s budget proposed budget cuts to health care, the university, K-12, the marine highway system, public broadcasting, and a host of other programs. These cuts were to address the $1.6 billion deficit caused by the $1.9 billion needed for the popular dividend payments. Many of the cuts were restored here recently and on the horizon is an effort to recall the Governor. The first of several steps of the process has been taken and the state’s Attorney General is now considering the legal grounds for the recall. That decision should be out in a few weeks and, depending how he comes down on the issue, the recall process will go forward or it will be taken up in the courts.

At the same time, on the federal front, with support from the Governor and Alaska’s federal delegation, the Trump administration moved to reverse the Obama administration policies on oil and gas exploration, leasing, and development. In addition, the federal government is making large investments in Alaska in response to national security risks from Russia, China, and North Korea.

As to our political culture, a recent visitor to the state captured the paradox of it well. “Alaskans are tough, adventurous, gritty, hard working, rugged, and self-reliant; but at the same time, they are more dependent on government than any people I have ever seen.”

What’s Next for UA?

In response to the settlement we reached with the Governor on August 13, from a 41 percent cut in one year to a 20 percent cut over three years, the Board of Regents took several steps to reset by:

  • withdrawing the declaration of financial exigency
  • suspending a system level consideration of duplicative academic units
  • backing away, for now, from planning for transition from three to one institutional accreditations
  • empowering the universities to conduct their own academic program reviews…because we still need to cut costs by 20 percent, on top of 15 percent we have already taken

Then, despite these conciliatory, calming, and stabilizing moves, we were surprised to receive a letter from the regional accreditor of our three universities expressing concerns about lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities between the Board of Regents (and its president), on the one hand, and the chancellors on the other. An additional concern related to inclusion of faculty, staff, and students in the Board’s decision making processes. The accreditor asked for a response to its concerns by October 31. As well, the Board has scheduled a workshop on November 7 to clarify roles and responsibilities. This workshop will be supported by national experts on state systems and regional accreditation and include the Board, the chancellors, and our student, faculty, and staff leaders.

Of course, amidst all this sturm and drang, we also must operate a university system. So, the Board just recently passed a reduced annual operating budget for this fiscal year, allocating reductions to each university to meet the state’s cut and cutting a little deeper in order to fund the Board’s strategic priorities for economic development, workforce development, research, attainment, and cost effectiveness. It also funded the first compensation increases for faculty and staff, after several years of going without. These were to address legally required “equity” and market salary gaps.

I expect the budget for the next couple years to continue that approach, though I believe we will see additional emphasis on

  • increasing student to instructional faculty ratios, now substantially under our peers (we are at 11:1; our peers are at 18:1
  • additional program reductions and potential consolidations
  • continued administrative consolidation
  • monetizing physical assets (land and facilities)
  • investing in modern systems and leaner processes
  • stepping up philanthropy from alumni
  • expanding our on-line program offerings
  • increasing collaboration with K-12 and with employers
  • building on our innovative UA2040 vision which empowers Alaskans to co-create the future university and our state

In closing, when we reached the agreement with the Governor on August 13, I got a note from APLU president Peter McPherson. “Jim, you have just moved from the impossible to the very difficult.”

In addition to managing through all our difficult technical challenges (budget, programs, etc.), borrowing from Harvard leadership scholar Ron Heifetz, I would argue that facing our adaptive challenge for the university and the state is paramount. And that adaptive challenge is, how do we preserve what is most core to our mission and purpose at the university for our state, while shedding what we must in order to adapt and thrive in a changing economic, demographic, and technological world?

Heifetz has taught us that the role of leaders is clear in a stable environment: (1) provide sustainable resources, (2) ensure security from outside forces or threats, and (3) manage internal tension or conflict. That role becomes much more challenging when the context changes suddenly and radically, such that the skills and capabilities of leaders that were so successful in an earlier context must be recognized as insufficient, as needing change, in that new context. So, adapting as leaders becomes the difficult challenge in addition to trying to adapt the context, because at the end of the day, Scylla and Charybdis are always with us—Scylla, that multi-headed hydra reaching down from the cliff to pick us off and Charybdis, the violent whirlpool threatening to suck us all down. But somehow—with the all the wisdom, faith, and grace we can muster—we will make it through, we will thrive as a university and as a state. Because, as you have proven here in California and we will prove in Alaska, you must have a great university to be a great state.