Voices of Alaska: A great state needs a great university

  • By Jim Johnsen
  • Saturday, April 23, 2016 2:44pm
  • Opinion

In a few short weeks, more than 4,600 students will cross graduation stages all across Alaska and begin the journey into the next phase of their lives. I am encouraged by their resilience and their potential to do great things for themselves and our state. In many respects, the university has played a critical role in shaping these young men and women, and they in turn will shape our world.

There are parallels between the challenges and opportunities they face, and those faced by the University of Alaska. We both are walking into an uncertain time, but understand that we have great opportunities to pursue with energy, confidence, and commitment.

For the university, this future means tough choices. With our budget possibly being cut by as much as $50 million, we are faced with making deep budget cuts while at the same time meeting the educational needs of our students and our state.

I’ve said all along that the university is an important and wise investment in the state’s future, and it is my intent to lead by example and demonstrate that when faced with budget adversity, we know what to do even though the choices are tough.

 Our budget options call for substantial reductions. These will hit us hard and they will affect our programs, our people, and our communities. The economic impact alone of severe job losses will hurt our local economies. At the same time, we must invest in key programs such as research, teacher education and health sciences, as well the deferred maintenance of our aging facilities. We will not only take the cuts from the front line level, with predictable impacts on our students. We also are looking at making substantial reductions at the senior leadership level — at the central office and on the campuses.

Strategic Pathways, introduced several months ago, will provide the framework for making the tough choices for evaluating academic programs and administrative services across the university system. The basic idea is to build on the unique strengths of each of our universities to meet the state’s high priority needs for higher education. Each campus will lead in selected areas so that we can ensure high quality, wide access, and cost effectiveness of our programs. As we make tough decisions over the coming months and years, we will make sure to: (1) provide wide access to our programs to students all across the state, (2) grow our own Alaska trained workforce, (3) continue to invest in research, which leverages outside dollars by a factor of more than four times, and (4) diversify our economy and build new businesses through commercialization of our intellectual property. Taken together, these steps will build a culture of education for our state, without which we will not thrive in a world economy that is increasingly differentiated by the quality and quantity of human talent.

The good news is that according to the preliminary findings of a recent privately funded poll of 923 residents across Alaska, done by the highly respected McDowell Group, Alaskans believe in the importance of the University of Alaska. The poll found that:

— Nearly all Alaska residents (95 percent) consider the University of Alaska very important to Alaska.

— Among parents and grandparents with school-age children, 85 percent said they would encourage their students to attend the University of Alaska. Leading reasons included proximity to home and quality of the education.

— Nearly 90 percent of residents agreed or strongly agreed that Alaska businesses benefit from the university’s workforce development and training.

— More than 80 percent credit the university with helping keep young Alaskans in our state and increasing Alaska hire.

— 75 percent agreed that state funding cuts would have a negative impact on Alaska’s economy. The majority of those surveyed (86 percent) agreed that it is very important that the state invest in the university’s budget.

— 88 percent said that the university plays a vital role in shaping Alaska’s future.

Encouraged by this strong support for, and opinion of the university, we will move forward, leading our state’s the future.

In these challenging times, we must pull together. That’s what Alaskans do. We know what to do when it is 40 below and someone is having car trouble. We pull over and we help. That’s exactly what we must do today for Alaska.

Back in 1915, Judge James Wickersham dedicated the cornerstone on College Hill in Fairbanks for what has become the University of Alaska. He understood the power of the university to lead in delivering a better Alaska. When the territorial legislature held its constitutional convention, it turned to the University of Alaska because it understood the role of the university to foster a new constitution and build our state.

Now more than ever, we play a critical role in our state’s development because “a great state needs a great university.” Despite our state’s challenges, we are optimistic about Alaska’s future. We hope our legislators reduce the proposed cut to our budget and we invite them — and you — to join us at our graduations across the state in the coming weeks. There you will see our future written on the faces of more than 4,600 Alaskans and their families, proud of their students’ accomplishments and confident in the future of Alaska.

Jim Johnsen is the 14th president of the University of Alaska.

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