UA looks to return to its roots as it faces challenges

No Kachemak Bay Campus programs are on the chopping block.

That’s the good news delivered by University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen during a visit last week to Homer. KBC, the branch campus of Kenai Peninsula College, University of Alaska Anchorage, also won’t see changes to its popular Kachemak Bay Writers Conference.

“If it has private funding, why would we go after that? That’s an example of something that doesn’t cost us much,” Johnsen said. “That’s the purpose of community campuses. It’s that continuing education, that lifelong learning that’s part of the mission.”

The Caroline Musgrove Coons Writers’ Endowment and foundation grants support the writers conference, with some indirect college support through office and staff time.

Johnsen visited Homer as part of a tour of the Kenai Peninsula by the University of Alaska’s 14th president, on the job since late July. He spoke Nov. 11 at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center luncheon at Land’s End Resort, toured KBC and met with students, faculty and staff, and then talked with local press with KBC Director Carol Swartz, KPC Director Gary Turner and UA Regent Lisa Parker. 

Johnsen talked about future university funding, collaboration and cooperation among its three major units, and the role of the university in Alaska’s growing information economy.

“We’re literally running from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., full speed every

day,” Johnsen said at the chamber luncheon of his tour. “It allows me to learn a lot, which is a big reason why I’m here: meet a lot of people and listen to students.”

Gov. Bill Walker appointed Johnson UA president last summer. A former UA vice president of administration and chief of staff, Johnsen, 58, returns to academia after serving as an executive with Alaska Communications and Doyon Limited. 

Part of Johnsen’s pitch has been promoting a $913 million 2017 fiscal year UA general fund request to the state, a 7.6-percent increase over this year’s budget. Upbeat and positive, he said he feels great going into next year’s session of the Alaska Legislature.

“My job is to tell the university’s strengths and to share with our legislators and other state leaders the value of the investment they make in higher education,” Johnsen said. “That value is quantitative but also qualitative.”

At the same time, Johnsen conceded  that asking for a budget increase in a year when fiscal hawks will be sharpening their talons isn’t likely to fly. Gov. Bill Walker and the Office of Management and Budget have told the university to expect a cut of 4.5 percent or $15.8 million for 2017.

The legislative cycle, particularly if the Legislature goes into special sessions, also poses a challenge for the university: there’s a narrow window of time between when budgets get finalized in June and the university has to plan for its next academic year in the summer.

“We have no idea. We don’t,” Johnsen said about the 2017 budget. “Our biggest challenge is fiscal uncertainty.”

In his chamber talk, Johnsen reassured Homer that he supports rural campuses. In response to a question by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, about how the university balances rural vs. main campuses, Johnsen told about meeting a man in Kenai who told him how to solve the budget problem: cut back to two campuses, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“I said, ‘With all due respect, sir, no,’” Johnsen said. “We’re not going to retreat.”

Johnsen quoted former UA President Mark Hamilton, who said if the university only had Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses, “We’re going to be the University of the Big Cities, not the University of Alaska.’

“If you look at the money, the big bucks, they’re not at the rural campuses,” Johnsen said about the budget. “They’re in Anchorage and Fairbanks.”

If rural campuses want to see more programs, though, they’ll have to look to public-private partnerships. That was the advice Johnsen gave in response to a question at the chamber luncheon by Angie Newby about what it would take to build student dorms in Homer.

“The much more successful approach is to go through this partnership,” Johnsen said. “It’s got to be really with some partnership from the private sector.”

One common criticism the university faces is its confusion about being one university in name with three main campuses — UAF, UAA and University Alaska Southeast, all with rural branches. Is it one university or three?

“Yes,” Johnsen said. “That is the answer. We are one and we are three.”

UA has a central administration, but each unit has different strengths. For example, UAF is the Arctic research center, Johnsen said, and UAS has become a leader in distance education.

In response to a question by former mayor Jim Hornaday on keeping other branches from taking away KBC online education courses, Johnsen said he was concerned about that. Johnsen said it’s OK for branch campuses to offer online courses that are open to students statewide.

“I like the idea of a market of course availability, but I don’t like it to be where we’re cannabilizing ourselves,” he said.

That’s part of the changing nature of the university. Swartz said now more than half KBC’s enrollment is in online courses.

“Five years from now, the University of Alaska is going to look very different than it looks today,” Parker said. “We live in a digital society. Where is education going next?”

That doesn’t mean face-to-face classroom teaching will go away, she said.

“There are certain classes you can never offer online,” Parker said.

The University of Alaska should play a key role in creating an information economy, part of Alaska’s changing post-petroleum economy, Johnsen said. It’s no accident that American technological centers like Silicon Valley are near centers of learning like Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, he said.

“We’ve got to diversify our economy. We’ve got elements of a knowledge economy, but not enough,” he said.

As the university moves forward in difficult fiscal times, it should look back to its founding for core values, Johnsen said. In his talk to the chamber, he showed a historic slide showing two photos from the university’s founding in 1915. One was of the Tanana chiefs and another of laying the university cornerstone. Though a confluence of two cultures, they showed how Native and pioneer Alaskans were both committed to higher education.

“Courage, hope, vision, grit, persistence: all of those qualities that are depicted in these two pictures are the qualities Alaskans have,” Johnsen said. “We need to go back to those strengths as we deal with those tough challenges.”