Early this month, Jim Johnsen, the presumptive next president of the University of Alaska system, traveled to Juneau.
It’s a tough time to be stepping into the system’s top job. Faced with a multibillion-dollar statewide deficit, cost-cutting lawmakers have targeted the University of Alaska. At best, the university’s funding will remain flat — a de facto cut when contracts require pay increases for many employees.
In Juneau, Johnsen said his vision for the University of Alaska includes a “focus on distinctive strength” at each of the system’s campuses. In Fairbanks, that would mean a focus on mining and engineering. At Anchorage, aviation technology and the Institute of Social and Economic Research will take priority.
What will this mean for Juneau?
Johnsen pointed to the University of Alaska Southeast teacher education program as a distinctive strength here.
We agree that establishing a focus is important for each of the university’s campuses, but how that focus is implemented will matter a great deal. Will it involve cutting everything but that focus? Or will it involve something as simple as ensuring each campus uses the same curriculum and materials as the others, saving money through efficiency? We would hate to see UAS becoming nothing more than a teachers’ college, valuable only to a niche audience.
We have already seen the loss of UAS’ ceramics program, an institution that brightened Juneau with art, and we worry about the future even as we understand that cuts must be made.
Why not take advantage of the natural resources Juneau offers — the icefield, the open water — and include a focus on the marine environment and the outdoors? UAS’ diesel maintenance program is a good one, and feeds our local industry.
We also remind UA officials that regardless of their decision, the public must be kept informed. Earlier this month, reporter Katie Moritz wrote about one Juneau resident who was stunned to learn that her years of preparation for a dental program were for naught because the program had been canceled weeks before she was to begin.
The UA system must involve the public to avoid further cases like this.
Furthermore, we expect the Legislature in the coming year to examine new sources of revenue. The University of Alaska should do the same. UA has not yet made the recruitment of international students a priority, but that overlooks Alaska’s great geographic advantage.
Alaska is equidistant from Europe, Asia and the East Coast of North America. The university system should take advantage of that fact, just as the state’s airports have. They’ve become transshipment and refueling stations that serve world commerce. UA could become an international destination for learning and education.
As Johnsen prepares to become UA’s president, we hope that his focus strategy will not overlook ways to grow the university, not simply preserve its core specialties.
— The Juneau Empire,