Alaska Voices: Build Alaska’s economy on the strengths of its university system

  • By Jim Johnsen
  • Thursday, February 7, 2019 9:32pm
  • Opinion

Years ago a friend and I were talking about a political geography class I was teaching at the university. I shared my excitement about the class and, particularly, my interest in the many variables that go into understanding a country’s politics — climate, population, global location, economy, transportation, culture, religion just to name a few. My friend politely recognized all those variables, but offered another view. He said, “Jim, there’s only one thing you need to know about a country; the rest is details. And that one thing is, are people trying to get in or trying to get out?”

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development reports that for the last six years in a row Alaska’s population has declined. People are getting out.

They are voting with their feet. They are taking their skills, ideas, families, savings, careers, and futures “Outside.” Most likely they are migrating to a place with a stronger and more balanced and vibrant economy, with plentiful job opportunities, lower health and energy costs, good schools, less crime, and a hopeful vision for the future.

I commend Governor Mike Dunleavy’s campaign commitment, reiterated in his State of the State address: Alaska is open for business. While policy details to realize that commitment are yet to come, Alaska’s approach to generating an open business climate would include the following:

• streamlining and standardizing regulatory and permitting processes so companies seeking to invest in development in Alaska can do so without undue cost and delay

• ensuring that our government and legal system provide public safety and protect private property rights, free markets, worker health and safety, and the environment

• providing a transportation, energy, and communication infrastructure that enables resource development, commerce, health care, and education

• supporting a culture of respect across Alaska, where we make sure all of our people have an equal opportunity to live a safe and meaningful life

• implementing a revenue plan that is balanced across economic sectors and sufficient to support the variety of services we expect from government

• encouraging a long term and inclusive view of Alaska’s future, a view that values our strong independent streak and the imperative that, in this tough country, we must work together

• investing in a high quality education system, preschool through university, that provides a skilled workforce for the state’s businesses, schools, and health care industry; and also encourages creativity, innovation and development of new products and services that drive business development and enhance our productivity and quality of life

We know these strategies work based on what we’ve learned from states and countries with strong economies. In particular, Alaska needs to build on the strengths of its university system, because a strong state requires a strong university. It is as simple, true, and powerful as that.

At the University of Alaska, our budgets have been cut, our programs reduced, our faculty and staff laid off, and our enrollment declined. The recent loss of program accreditation within the UAA School of Education presents yet another challenge to recruiting and retaining students and faculty in our high priority programs. We are managing through that challenge by putting our students first, making sure that they have a path to becoming a teacher here in Alaska. Students graduating this spring and summer will be licensed, and we are working on convenient, high quality options for other students, whether in Anchorage, or if they choose, in Juneau and Fairbanks.

The University of Alaska plays a critical role in diversifying our economy, growing an Alaskan workforce, and solving real world problems through world-class research. Our campuses in rural communities are small but powerful, giving Alaskans from Ketchikan to Kotzebue access to opportunities for a better life that come from education and training.

Our urban universities also play a big role in moving the state forward. UAA is our largest university with excellent programs in nursing, engineering, business, social work, and more. UAA also is the home of UA’s first ever Rhodes Scholar, the single most prestigious accolade given to a student anywhere in the world. UAA also recently received notice that its institutional accreditation was approved, with several commendations, for another seven years.

UA Southeast does great work in educating students for important jobs in mining, marine-oriented and other industries in Southeast Alaska. UAS also extends its reach across the state in teacher education and through numerous online programs.

And UAF, Alaska’s first university, continues to build on its world renowned strengths in Arctic research, oceanography, biology, fisheries, mining, engineering, geophysics, and many other fields, while also encouraging workforce development, indigenous studies, business, and Alaska’s quality of life through excellence in its art and music programs.

And at all of our campuses — whether in rural or urban Alaska — people young and old, from all walks of life and from all cultures across our state, are welcome.

So let’s invest in our university and in the opportunities it provides our people here in Alaska. With a strong commitment to education — pre-school through high school and on to our community colleges and the university — Alaskans will vote with their feet and stay in the state, and invest their skills, ideas, aspirations, families, and their futures here in Alaska. Then, and only then, will we truly be “open for business.”

James R. Johnsen is president of the University of Alaska.

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