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Q&A with Jim Johnsen, President, University of Alaska


University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen

© JR Ancheta

Alaska Business Monthly: One goal of the University of Alaska’s Strategic Pathways is to develop a highly skilled workforce for Alaska jobs. How many students will graduate from the University of Alaska this May?

Jim Johnsen: While we won’t have exact numbers until late May, we anticipate approximately 4,700 students to graduate from the University of Alaska (UA) in 2017. We’re very proud of our graduates and we look forward to watching them grow into Alaska’s next generation of leaders. That said, there’s more we need to do. Our state is currently facing a variety of challenges, and we believe that education and innovation will drive the change that we need to build the Alaska of tomorrow. The single most important factor in building a competitive and sustainable economy in Alaska is developing our talent. UA does that by providing high quality, affordable, and accessible academic and vocational programs.

By 2025, 65 percent of the jobs in our economy are projected to require workers to have some post-secondary training. The last time this was measured, Alaska met 37 percent of this need. If K-12, vocational programs, other Alaska institutions, and UA education can prepare Alaskans for these jobs, Alaskans will fill them. Otherwise, Alaska will continue to face a shortage of skilled employees and will need to import labor from outside or do without even as unemployment in Alaska continues to rise. We’re working to inspire Alaskans to join us in meeting this 65 percent by 2025 goal with a new, privately-funded campaign. Alaskans can find out more and sign up to be part of the change that Alaska needs at www.drivechangeak.org.

ABM: What jobs will they fill in Alaska? How many of those coincide with current labor market demand?

Johnsen: The university system has more than 400 degree and certificate programs and our 2017 graduates will head out into the world with diverse thoughts about what they want to do with their lives.

Healthcare is the sector of the economy that will employ many of our grads. We’ve seen about 70 percent growth in healthcare graduates and students since 2002, and we expect that sector to continue expanding in the future. About one in every twelve jobs in Alaska is related to healthcare. From 2015 to 2016, healthcare employment increased by 2.6 percent (900 jobs) with modest growth of about 1.4 percent (500 jobs) predicted for this year, according to the Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development in the January 2017 Alaska Economic Trends. Opportunities continue to grow in this field throughout the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the healthcare industry added 357,000 jobs nationwide from February 2016 to February 2017.

While there’s been contraction in many economic sectors overall, most jobs require some postsecondary training. The University of Alaska holds a unique educational position in the world as America’s only Arctic university. Many UA science post-graduates and even undergraduates are already working on research that is shaping the future of the Arctic and beyond.

The Alaska oil and gas market is contracting, but our engineers, oilfield, and mining service professionals continue to find work in Alaska in the resource development industry.

Beyond immediate employment, attaining higher education is associated with more income, a stronger and more diversified economy, better health, more civic engagement, and producing citizens who give back to the communities in which they live and work. That’s great for families, business, and for the future success of our children.

For me personally, one of the great benefits of keeping our graduates in Alaska is the fact that because they love the state, they are well positioned to innovate and create new enterprises to serve our state for years to come.

ABM: Who are this year’s University of Alaska graduates?

Johnsen: The number and types of graduates in 2017 are expected to be similar to those in 2016 based on our enrollment patterns and overall trends.

Of the degrees, certificates, and endorsements awarded, about 39 percent are bachelor’s degrees, 28 percent associate degrees, 19 percent graduate degrees and licensures, and the remaining 14 percent certificates and occupational endorsements.

The most popular degrees across the system are in business and public administration followed by health. Vocational education is the next highest category with the highest volume coming from associate degrees followed by certificates and occupational endorsements. These include a variety of disciplines such as welding and construction, aviation and mechanics, culinary arts, and computer electronics. Liberal arts disciplines and education make up the next two categories. Math, engineering, and social sciences comprise the bulk of the remaining degree areas, with smaller numbers graduating in computer and information sciences, foreign languages, visual and performing arts, and interdisciplinary studies.

The highest number of graduate degrees are awarded in management, education, math, and physical and life sciences, followed by natural resources, engineering, and social sciences.

ABM: Help us understand why the School of Education was moved to the UAS (University of Alaska Southeast) campus. When will this portion of the Strategic Pathways reorganization be fully implemented and how will it serve to increase the number of teachers graduating from the University of Alaska?

Johnsen: The Strategic Pathways initiative was approved by the Board of Regents in January 2016 to make the university stronger, more cost effective, and more accessible. As you know, the state is experiencing a significant budget crisis and the university system is working hard to find efficiencies while maintaining the highest standards of educational excellence.

At the same time there is an urgent need to increase the number of teachers working in Alaska who come from and are trained in Alaska. Currently 70 percent of the teachers hired each year come from outside Alaska. Annual teacher turnover in rural Alaska school districts is as high as 50 percent. Strategic Pathways is about ensuring greater accountability to meet Alaska’s needs for more Alaska-prepared educators.

The goal of the university is that by 2025, 90 percent of new teachers hired in Alaska will be trained at UA. This is a huge lift from current numbers and will require new ways of attracting Alaskans to the profession and providing training throughout the state.

Pending approval by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the new structure for the College of Education will be a consolidation of the administration. Education faculty, students, and classes will remain at the various campuses across the university system. The College of Education’s dean and administration will be housed at UAS. This move will consolidate three separate administrative offices to one at UAS. Education faculty throughout the system—in Anchorage and Fairbanks—will report to the College of Education at UAS.

By focusing a single, collaborative College of Education on UA’s strategic goals, aligning programs with K-12 to strengthen the system, focusing on teacher quality, streamlining hiring and placement of UA graduates, enhancing mentoring programs and career development for new teachers, and raising the prestige of the profession, we can meet these goals. Through a single-school approach there will be increased consistency in degree programs, increased collaboration among faculty, more support for innovation, and increased nimbleness and simplification of governance processes, all while increasing productivity and cost-effectiveness.

It’s important to note that students will not have to move to Juneau to earn their teaching degrees and certifications, nor to earn continuing education credit; courses and programs will be available at all three universities regardless of the administrative base.

The full implementation of this change is dependent upon approval by our accrediting agency, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

We have amazing faculty and staff in the College of Education and I know students studying to become our future teachers will be well served.

ABM: The goal of providing 90 percent of the new teachers hired each year is a bit nebulous. Can you put numbers to that?

Johnsen: In FY16 approximately 2,000 students were enrolled in education programs as their primary majors at all levels, and UAA, UAF, and UAS awarded a total of 429 education degrees.

The most recent study on teacher hires, completed in 2013, reports that about 70 percent of teachers are hired from outside Alaska—around 800 teachers each year. Approximately 16 percent of new teachers are UA graduates, and the other 14 percent are teachers in Alaska returning to the classroom after an absence (taking leave, working in another field/state, etc.). Overall, about 30 percent of educators in Alaska are UA graduates and they tend to stay teaching in Alaska much longer than the teachers prepared outside Alaska.

ABM: What other colleges and programs are going to be integrated and consolidated within the UA system’s sixteen campuses as part of Strategic Pathways?

Johnsen: There are twenty-three different areas under consideration, and work is underway to determine how each recommendation will be implemented. We have yet to determine the final disposition of each area, since decisions are made after a complete and inclusive process. There are no pre-determined consolidation plans.

Many have expressed concern about possible consolidations. I’ve listened to those concerns and suggestions from our faculty, staff, students, and the community and have implemented a number of their recommendations including slowing down the review process somewhat and implementing a cost-benefit analysis of Phase 2 and 3 options. We are striving for a process that is inclusive, transparent, and goal driven, and I am implementing improvements as we learn what works well.

I want to highlight that more than 250 faculty, staff, students, and community leaders have participated on our review teams. Literally thousands of hours have been spent generating and analyzing seventy-five different options for improvement, with more to come. Thousands of messages from our communities have been reviewed by management and the Board of Regents.

As a result of Strategic Pathways, I am confident we will make better decisions and have a stronger university.

ABM: Tell us about the university’s research programs and their impacts on diversifying the economy.

Johnsen: Our world class research is a huge asset for the university. Research enhances our reputation, strengthens the training our students receive in our labs and in our classrooms, solves real problems we face in Alaska, and contributes to Alaska’s economic development and diversification.

After all, tech firms in Silicon Valley and in the research triangles around the country are not there just because the weather is nice. They are there because of Berkeley, Stanford, and Michigan and because of the talented, well-educated, innovative workforce they can draw upon.

To that end, we are stepping up our focus on the commercialization of our intellectual property and I look forward to seeing UA ideas and technologies as the foundation for new businesses that strengthen our economy and provide quality jobs for Alaskans.

But we have some challenges. We must retain our star researchers in a very competitive research labor market. As other states’ economies are doing a lot better than ours, they are able to invest in their universities’ capacity to compete in the increasingly important field of Arctic research. We are making strategic investments in our research programs including in the Alaska Center for Energy and Power and in the Institute of Social and Economic Research.

With regard to the Strategic Pathways review of research administration, we are looking at some consolidation of administrative functions at UAF, the primary research university in the system, but important research will continue to be conducted throughout Alaska through all three universities.

ABM: Why choose the University of Alaska for post-secondary, advanced degrees and certificates, and post-graduate education?

Johnsen: It takes a great university to build a great state. The University of Alaska is a high quality, affordable choice for those Alaskans who want to change their lives. Alaskans set their goals, and our job is to help them reach those goals. We believe the University of Alaska changes everything—it changes lives, our possibilities, our future, and our state.

Let me also add that:

  • We have proudly served Alaska for one hundred years through research, teaching, and service.
  • We have grown from one campus in 1922 to fifteen campuses today, from Ketchikan to Kotzebue.
  • We graduated 1 person in 1923 and 4,700 this last year.
  • We have risen from a remote territorial college in the far north to the number one university in the world in Arctic research.
  • We are recognized as the number one most affordable state university system in the nation.
  • We are the number one producer of workforce in Alaska.
  • We are the number one research organization in Alaska, providing real solutions to real problems.
  • Last and most important, we are strong because of our people:
    • Our students: who seek skills, knowledge, and a brighter future full of opportunity,
    • Our faculty: who have committed themselves to the noble cause of discovery, teaching, and serving society,
    • Our staff: who give it their best every day to support our educational mission,
    • Our alumni: who carry our flag out into the world, working all across our state, creating new businesses and solving the state’s problems, and giving back to the university that moved them forward in life,
    • Our partners: employers, communities, agencies, and the many others across our state and the country who help advance our work,
    • Our donors: who pay it forward with their own resources, whose generosity enables our students to realize their dreams, whose foresight provides our university a margin of excellence in all we do,
    • Our leaders and all with Alaskan values: the grit, perseverance, work ethic, commitment, and respect for each other no matter what city or village we call home.

ABM: Where are the best job opportunities for Alaska graduates?

Johnsen: The university is the number one producer of workforce in Alaska. When the healthcare sector asked us to graduate more nurses, we did. When the engineering sector asked us to double our graduation of engineers, we did. As mentioned earlier, healthcare is forecasted to continue to grow in the years ahead and we are well positioned to meet that workforce need.

When the oil and gas industry asked us to train more process technicians, we did. Now the education sector is asking for more Alaskan grown teachers and I can say with confidence that we will!

I believe our graduates will continue to find opportunity in many sectors of the Alaska economy, particularly those who are innovators, researchers, teachers, engineers, nurses, and in the trades. 

This article first appeared in the May 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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