Jim Johnsen

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 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, and national and international science organizations are demonstrating continued support by convening symposiums and meetings at the Alaska university.

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.

Another meeting at UAA, of an international food security group last summer, brought $1 million in visitor income into Southcentral Alaska, UAA Chancellor Sandeen said, citing data from Visit Anchorage, the local visitor association.

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

Although 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 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 and employs about 1,000, 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. The group had a combined 3.5 average high school Grade Point Average, demonstrating the caliber of the incoming students, Sandeen said.

What also lends strength to UA is a well-developed dual-enrollment initiative between UAA, the Anchorage School District and the Matanuska-Susitna School District. It has resulted in students beginning UAA having completed the equivalent of the first year of college while in high school, Sandeen said.

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

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

UAF and UAS do have minimum requirements for entry.

A large number of UAA students are continuing their higher education that started earlier, or elsewhere, but was interrupted. “Ninety percent of our students are working part-time, and 50 percent are helping care for family members. Ten percent are veterans or active military,” Sandeen told the chamber.

“Any one of these would be considered higher-risk for students not being able to complete their degree programs,” she said, because of their responsibilities causing 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.

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