For inspiration, UA President Johnsen offers a path forward for Alaska

At a time when much of state government lacks inspiration and a vision for Alaska’s future, the speech given by University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen Tuesday offered an ambitious and optimistic path forward.

Johnsen concluded his “State of the University” speech with a passage that strikes me as an alternative to those who tell us the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

The written text, which he followed for the most part, is as follows:

I am the first to admit that we are not perfect, and no doubt we will be making significant changes in the coming months and years, but there is no other cornerstone in this state more successful than the University of Alaska in creating success for Alaskans, from our days as a territory, through the fight for statehood, through our current hard economic times and into the future.

So, I ask you, what does success for Alaska look like?

It looks like more than 100,000 alumni who have left our university with more skills, and more knowledge and more ability than when they arrived. Who are working in Alaska. And who are increasingly giving back financially to UA.

It looks like more than 4,500 graduates each year with the certificates and the degrees—in teaching, nursing, engineering, welding, maritime trades, biology, and on and on—that will give them and their families a better life and grow our state.

And it looks like:

• Our enrollment of Alaska’s first people, which recently began to exceed their share of our population.

• Our students interning in legislative offices in Juneau, with the support of the Senator Ted Stevens Foundation, learning about our politics so they can lead in the future.

• Our research, which literally leads the world in understanding life in the North. Our environment, our cultures, our energy, our infrastructure, our politics, our economics, and more.

• Our Board of Regents plan, which sets clear and ambitious goals and measures, and which guides investment in the strategic initiatives to reach those goals.

Finally, UA’s vision for advanced education in Alaska in 2040 asks “what if, why not”? A vision that builds on our tremendous assets, including the diverse people who call Alaska home and their university.

A vision that says we can put our students at the center of all we do, making the knowledge we discover available to students wherever they are on their educational pathway, whether they are

• seventh-graders interested in E-sports,

• teachers seeking to know more about the science of learning,

• farmers interested in how to grow and market Peonies,

• professionals wanting to know more about Artificial Intelligence, or

• seniors interested in reflecting on the big questions of human life or just wanting to learn Indian cooking.

That vision for our university is only possible if we think more like the founders of our state and our university, who focused a lot less on “me now” and more on all Alaskans as citizens of our state and what the future Alaska could look like.

So, as we assess the state of the University of Alaska in 2019, and make decisions about its future, let us do so through the eyes of that Alaska we all want—a state with a strong and sustainable economy providing opportunity for meaningful work, a state that welcomes and supports a free people from whatever background they come, a state full of vibrant communities that provide strength to their members. A state that embraces knowledge and a respect for those who want to do better.

As true across the nation as it is here in Alaska, that’s a state built upon the discoveries made by the faculty of its universities, the knowledge shared with its students, and the service it provides to its communities.

When we think about how to move forward starting today, and embrace the fact that UA is strong, I would challenge you to ask yourself these questions, adapted from a scholar who lived many years ago:

• If not UA’s cause, what?

• If not Alaska, then where?

• And if not now, then when?

• And finally, if not you—faculty, staff, students, alumni, partners, donors, and our state’s leaders now deliberating our fate – then who?

As we answer those questions, I urge you to recapture those same qualities that have helped Alaskans thrive through the dark and the cold for more than ten thousand years—our grit, confidence, cooperation, creativity, and commitment to a cause greater than each of us alone, a cause beyond one time or place, a cause that makes all of us better than we are.

Dermot Cole1 Comment