The lone finalist to become the next president of the University of Wisconsin System participated in several interviews Tuesday.
Dr. Jim Johnsen, University of Alaska System president, met Tuesday morning with the presidential search committee and a group of stakeholders, including students, faculty and staff. An interview with the full Board of Regents was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
Last week, the UW System Administration office announced Johnsen as the only finalist to replace outgoing UW System President Ray Cross. The decision was met with some skepticism by faculty and staff members who felt they weren't included in the selection process.
Others expressed worry over Johnsen’s recent role in cutting dozens of academic programs at the University of Alaska due to budget constraints, a fix that’s already been proposed by Cross as the UW System stares down financial challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, the University of Alaska Board of Regents approved eliminating about 40 programs, including theater and sociology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and chemistry and earth science at University of Alaska Fairbanks.
During Tuesday morning’s call with stakeholders, Kathleen Dolan, a UW-Milwaukee political science professor, asked Johnsen how faculty and students would say he supported liberal arts education at the University of Alaska System given the cuts.
Johnsen suggested the outcome could have been worse. Last July, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed cutting the budget of the university system by 41 percent before that number was negotiated down to 20 percent over three years, Johnsen said.
Each of the system's seven campuses then completed their own program reviews led by chancellors and provosts with students and faculty included in the process. They examined things like quality, access, cost and market demand before proposing programs to be eliminated. Several rounds of reviews were completed before any decisions were made, Johnsen said.
Specifically addressing the liberal arts, Johnsen, who studied political philosophy as an undergraduate, said they’re "critically important."
"I believe the liberal arts are critical in exploring and understanding issues of why," he said.
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He also noted there are low enrollment, high-cost programs that simply weren't on the table when it came to cuts, giving the example of the university's Alaska Native Languages program.
"It's so important to who we are," he said.
Some UW System faculty and staff members expressed concern that the search committee chose to move forward with just one candidate. According to UW Board of Regents Vice President Michael M. Grebe, chair of the committee, other candidates withdrew from consideration because they didn’t want to be named publicly as finalists amid a pandemic.
Johnsen addressed this while speaking with stakeholders Tuesday morning, saying he's confident the team he’s put in place at the University of Alaska System will manage without him.
"One particular leader in a system is probably not as important as a broad collection of leaders across the system,” Johnsen said. "So when it comes to the question of why are you leaving Alaska during the COVID pandemic, we've got a great team here of people who are leading this very, very effectively."
He also answered questions about how he’ll work to make educational opportunities more accessible to students from all backgrounds despite coronavirus-related budget cuts.
In Alaska, he helped create the UA Scholars program, he said. The program provides scholarship assistance to the top 10 percent of students from every high school in the state, ensuring students from both urban and remote areas have access to financial help.
Under his leadership, dual enrollment programs were also expanded to help lower the cost of a university education for some high school students. As president of the UW System, he said he'd look into reducing administrative costs, putting the savings toward supporting students.
"The issue of diversity and inclusion is a huge, huge challenge facing us all," he said. "It's the big unresolved issue of our nation.”
Johnsen said everyone's voice needs to be involved in order to make the UW System successful, and he said he understands the frustrations many people are expressing over injustice.
Tuesday marked the 12th day of statewide Black Lives Matter protests.
"As I look at what's going on now, there are so many people who are hurt by the injustice and the racism in our society," he said.