Alaska official only finalist for Wisconsin system president

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The University of Alaska System's top official has emerged as the only finalist for the role of University of Wisconsin System president, University of Wisconsin officials announced Tuesday.

University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen will be interviewed June 9. A search committee will meet after the interview and make a hiring recommendation to the board of regents.

The university system has been searching for a new president since October, when Ray Cross announced he would step down as soon as a replacement could be found. They said in a statement that a number of candidates removed themselves from consideration after expressing concern over being publicly named as a finalist during the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnsen holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania. He has served as president of the University of Alaska System since 2015. He worked as assistant labor relations director for the University of Minnesota from 1992 to 1996, negotiating staff and faculty contracts. He became labor relations director for the Alaska system in 1996 and went on to serve the system as vice president of administration and vice president of faculty and staff relations.

He became senior vice president of human resources in 2011 for Alaska Communications, where he oversaw recruitment, compliance and labor relations. He left that job to return to the University of Alaska System as its president. He currently oversees three universities and 13 community colleges with an annual operating budget of around $900 million. The system has about 7,000 faculty and staff and nearly 30,000 students.

If he's hired as the Wisconsin system's leader, Johnsen would inherit a much larger university system — Wisconsin had about 167,000 students last fall — that's struggling with a host of issues, including declining enrollment, dwindling state aid, animosity from Republican legislators and deep questions about how the pandemic will reshape operations.

The system is entering its eighth year of a Republican-imposed freeze on in-state undergraduate tuition rates. Meanwhile, state aid for the system dropped 14% from 2008-09 to 2018-19, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The most recent state budget increased the system's funding, but it was less than the rate of inflation. Cross said he felt like he had been “kicked in the shins” by Republican lawmakers who approved the funding.

The system anticipates losing as much as $102.3 million in revenue through the end of the summer semester as students stay home to avoid the coronavirus. Cross has ordered schools to identify programs to cut by January and prepare for layoffs.

Johnsen has grappled with similar challenges in Alaska, including declining enrollment. Last year was particularly difficult, largely due to a $135 million proposed cut. An agreement was reached with Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy to reduce the cut to $70 million over three years.

Michael Bernard-Donals, president of PROFS, a group of UW faculty that advocates for tenure, research support and competitive wages, said it's troublesome that the search committee didn't include any faculty or staff members and identified only a single finalist. He said the committee probably should have re-started the search.

He also warned that Johnsen presided over a massive budget cut for the Alaska system and received a no-confidence vote from the Faculty Senate in October for proposing to consolidate the system into a single accredited institution.

The Alaska regents backed off that plan and Johnsen released a video acknowledging his role in what he called a systemwide breakdown in unity.

Cross had run-ins with faculty too. The UW-Madison Faculty Senate passed a no-confidence resolution against him in 2016, saying they didn't believe he would uphold the school's outreach mission in the face of budget cuts. He's also taken criticism for not consulting faculty before launching a plan to make the system's two-year schools regional branches of the closest four-year school and ordering the program cuts.

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Associated Press writer Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, contributed to this report.