Jim Johnsen

Earlier this year the University of Alaska went through a near-death experience.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy was pushing a 40 percent cut in funding for the state university system. Skilled faculty started sending out resumes. In the middle of multi-year college programs students looked elsewhere, and some went.

After the governor’s Office of Management and Budget proposed ending all university research federal research agencies wondered whether the University of Washington might not be a safer bet for ocean and Arctic research dollars.

The plan was part of the governor’s effort to reduce chronic state deficit and bring spending in line with revenues.

Things are now looking better for the university. After stiff pushback from the Legislature and community leaders the governor compromised, agreeing to a cut that was half of what he first proposed and one to be spread over three years rather than one.

“We have a three-year glide path,” UA president Jim Johnsen told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Monday at its weekly luncheon. It’s still not easy, though. The cuts agreed to are $25 million this year; $25 million next year and $20 million in the third year. It’s stiff medicine.

Johnsen and University of Alaska Chancellor Cathy Sandeen spoke at the Chamber event to update business leaders on progress the university is making in repairing damage from the budget turmoil.

Consolidations and program reductions are underway that are being led by the chancellors at UA’s three regional universities, University of Alaska Anchorage; University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Southeast, Johnsen said.

Statewide support functions like human resources, procurement and Information Technology are being combined.

However, the budget controversy has been a public relations disaster for the university. Despite a record-breaking incoming freshman class, enrollment at UAA overall is down 11 percent from spring to fall, and 12.5 percent at the UAA’s main Anchorage campus. Enrollment was down at UAF and UAS, too, although at smaller percentages.

The university is digging out. Private donors and alumni are opening up their pocketbooks, Johnsen told the chamber. Most recently the Premera Foundation granted UAA $1.7 million to support rural health initiatives, and the Atwood Foundation made a six-figure gift to support journalism.

In a smaller grant that is equally significant, professionals in the geomatics field, a technical specialty in the earth sciences that includes data-analysis and mapping, raised $152,000 in the depths of the university’s budget crisis to help UAA retain its core teaching staff in the geomatics program, Johnsen said.

National and international science organizations are also signaling continued support by convening symposiums and meetings at the university.

For example, sixteen directors of the 18 national energy laboratories met in Alaska last summer to learn about the university’s advanced work on microgrids for small communities where diesel and renewable energy sources are being integrated, Johnsen said.

Meetings at UAA contribute to Anchorage’s economy, too. A meeting at UAA of an international food security group last summer brought $1 million in visitor income into Southcentral Alaska, UAA Chancellor Sandeensaid. She cited data fromVisit Anchorage, the local visitor association. “That is their number (of economic impact), not mine,” she said

Johnsen cited two other endorsements: Congress has approved an Arctic security center in Alaska, most likely to be headquartered at the university, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has just announced new staffing for an Arctic Energy Office, also at UA.

Although it may be too early to tell – the governor introduces his new budget Dec. 15 – Dunleavy appears to have backed away from cutting the university’s research funds.

UA’s supporters say cutting research would be ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ because, Johnsen said, “for every $1 in state funds spent on the university’s research there are $6 in other funds, mostly federal, brought into the state’s economy. University research is almost an industry unto itself, employing about 1,000 people, Johnsen told the Anchorage Chamber.

Although the bad publicity took its toll, the large incoming fall class at UAA demonstrates the strength of the system, Sandeen said. Thirty-seven percent of the 2019 freshman class had a combined 3.5 average high school Grade Point Average, which demonstrates the caliber of the incoming students, Sandeen said.

UAA’s students are also strengthened by a well-developed dual-enrollment initiative between UAA, the Anchorage School District and the Matanuska-Susitna School District. Sandeen said this has resulted in students entering UAA having completed the equivalent of their first year of college while in high school.

“These students come in needing no remedial education,” she said.

A critical difference between UAA and the other two universities in the UA system, she said, is that UAA is an “open access” university, meaning there are no minimum entrance requirements.

UAF and UAS do have minimum requirements for entry.

This is important because it enables anyone regardless of their prior schooling to have a crack at higher education. A large number of UAA students, for example, are continuing their higher education that started earlier, or elsewhere, but was interrupted. “Ninety percent of our students are working part-time,” Sandeen said. “Fifty percent are helping care for family members. Ten percent are veterans or active military… Any one of these would be considered higher risk for students not being able to complete their degree programs,” she said, because of personal responsibilities that might cause further interruptions.

Johnsen said 20 percent of the university’s students are also Alaska Natives, many from small rural communities. That’s higher than the statewide population average of 15 percent Alaska Native.

Most of the leadership of Alaska Native corporations, now a powerful force in the state’s economy, are UA graduates, he said.

University programs like ANSEP, the nationally recognized Alaska Native in Science and Engineering Program, have done much to overcome the disadvantages rural Alaska young people have faced in small rural schools.

Johnsen and Sandeen are trying to get the word out about good things that are happening at the university.

But there’s an old saying, Johnsen said, “It takes nine good remarks to offset one bad remark,” he said. Getting over last year’s turmoil will take time, and there are still challenges that lie ahead.

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