Monday, May 21, 2018
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Incoming UT president known for quietly getting things done

ANCHORAGE - Looking out his office window at the University of Alaska, Provost Daniel Johnson has watched moose and wolves drink from Mosquito Lake while bald eagles circle overhead on the drafts off the Chugach Mountains.

The view is easily every one of its nearly 3,000 miles from the University of Toledo, where he will begin as president July 1.

But inside the classroom and office buildings of the 18,000-student Alaskan school, the institutions seem closer, at least historically and philosophically.

Dr. Johnson, 60, a Springfield, Ohio, native and a sociologist by training, has faced some of the same issues during his four years as a top academic administrator that he'll see when he begins as UT's 15th president. They include: serving nontraditional students, meeting the challenge of maintaining academic quality while continuing open enrollment, and establishing and maintaining academic programs to meet the needs of private industry.

One problem Dr. Johnson won't have in Toledo is UAA's chronic problem of moose blocking students' routes to classroom buildings.

His salary will be increased from the $145,330 he is paid in Alaska to $215,000 a year at UT, which has about 19,500 students.

In his conference room three floors above the downtown business district, Michael Kean has a favorite prop he uses with clients at the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, where he's the transportation director.

It's a globe with a piece of string affixed to Anchorage. Its length represents eight hours of flying time from the Alaskan port city. By twisting the globe and moving the loose end of the string, he can show how flying cargo over the top of the planet makes a majority of the world's industrialized cities easily accessible for freight shipments.

“If you look at the world from this angle, it makes a whole lot of sense,” said Mr. Kean, who is among the first class of graduate students in UAA's new global supply chain management master's degree program.

Mr. Kean, a retired air cargo manager for Northwest and Alaska airlines, helped develop the curriculum for the technical, specialized, multidisciplinary academic program, which is also offered at the undergraduate level.

Using funding from private industry and the city of Anchorage and academic support from the university - largely secured by Dr. Johnson - the program is poised to provide companies with well-trained workers for a growing industry.

Dr. Johnson's focus during his four years in Alaska was centered on issues of school identity and mission, academic quality, and community partnerships, within the context of his role as provost.

“We took those on as a major challenge. They're going to be a continuing challenge,” Dr. Johnson said.

He added “working in a collective bargaining environment” to his resume, learning lessons here about including faculty in decision-making onworkplace issues.

Shortly after arriving in Anchorage, Dr. Johnson began preparing for last year's accreditation. He discovered that the school's 15-week semester put classroom time at the bare minimum recommended for an accredited school.

With an average January low of 8 degrees Fahrenheit and winter snowfall of over 5 feet in Anchorage, Dr. Johnson worried about an accreditation team's view that counting “snow day” class cancellations put UAA below the standard.

Dr. Johnson admits that he made a mistake when he reacted by announcing that a week would be added to the semester calendar. The faculty wasn't consulted and was angry about how Dr. Johnson proceeded, even though they agreed with his intent to meet academic standards, said Dr. Carl Shepro, interim director of the Alaska Native Studies program and campus vice president of one of the three faculty unions at UAA.

“It was a question of how to do it,” he said. “If you're going to do that, you have to work with the unions because it was a contract issue.”

The eventual compromise: a week was added to the semester between the last scheduled class day and finals. If faculty miss a class, they can use that week to make it up.

Dr. Shepro and others have long since forgiven Dr. Johnson, and now praise his work.

“I think he has a genuine ethic of consensus and consensus-building. It's a great style,” said Dr. James Liszka, professor of philosophy and chairman of the faculty senate. “Our loss [at UAA] is your gain.”

Cynthia Deike-Sims, editor of the student newspaper, The Northern Light, has attended UAA intermittently since the mid 1980s. Under Dr. Johnson, she said, student services have improved, the campus looks better, and academic programs are providing students with the education and training they need for Alaska's workforce.

“I think Johnson's been one of the brightest spots at the university,” she said. “He's been very interested in making the university look like it's trying harder.”

Dr. Johnson is not known as a flashy front man. But those who have worked with him on projects ranging from curriculum development, to faculty contracts, to the hiring of professors in several disciplines, praise his quiet and efficient work.

An administrator in Texas and Virginia, he arrived in Anchorage a decade after UAA was formed by the absorption of a community college into the state's four-year system.

The merger was a cost-saving measure at the beginning of the “bust” years following the oil boom of the early 1980s. Duplicate administrative and staff positions were cut, and some academic departments were merged as part of budget crises that continued until recent years.

“That was a real blow to the community,” Dr. Johnson said.

The noneconomic value of the merger is still debated on the forested campus and in the surrounding community.

“It hasn't gone away,” said Dr. Shepro. “There was a great deal of distress, and there are still people who are concerned about it.”

UAA's board of regents responded to some of the concerns about maintaining access to higher education by mandating an open enrollment policy for students at UAA and providing remedial skills classes in math and English for less prepared students. But that has led to questions about the school's overall academic quality, a responsibility that falls on the provost as the top academic administrator on campus.

“What you do when you have a mission that's broad is set yourself up for criticism,” said Michael Burns, chairman of the regents and Alaska's district president of KeyBank.

Combining the school's history with UAA's standing as the only public school in town - the private, 700-student Alaska Pacific University offers a few degree programs on its campus next door - intensifies the struggle to overcome a public perception that it's a second-rate school.

Because UAA is only 14 years old, has a commuting student body that often doesn't form strong ties with campus organizations, and is lacking a sports program that draws loyal spectators to events, the university's community identity has been fuzzy at best.

“We've never had that kind of [alumni] support,” said UAA Regent Fran Rose, who was the director of adult education at the school in the 1980s before going to work in the private sector.

In recent years, UAA's presence has become more notable, in part because of some of Dr. Johnson's initiatives, Mr. Burns said.

“It's very much a work in progress,” he said. “I think he has been able to keep that going.”

As provost, Dr. Johnson spent much of his first year learning about the university and meeting people. However, a substantial portion of his time was devoted to the aftermath of mountaineering accident during a school outing that killed two students.

Feeling the heat of public and campus criticism of the outdoor education program and the perception that the university was hiding information, Dr. Johnson helped lead the investigation of the accident. This eventually led to a book, “Lessons Learned: A Guide to Accident Prevention and Crisis Response,” which included recommendations for correctly running an experiential education program.

Dr. Johnson receives praise for helping to publish the book - for which he wrote the forward - a common compliment for his often behind-the-scenes or early-stage work on other initiatives.

“Provost Johnson was very interested in creating something in writing that could be used as an educational tool regarding safety or lessons that had been learned as a result. He wanted a tangible product that could be shared with others so that they could benefit from our experience,” said Deborah Ajango, coordinator of Alaska outdoor and experiential education at UAA.

Dr. Hayden Green, dean of the college of business and public policy, credits Dr. Johnson with proving to the business community that the university is committed to innovative academic projects that benefit private industry.

As Dr. Green and former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom started recruiting contributions from companies like Alaska Airlines, Inc. and Federal Express Corp. for the global supply chain management program, Dr. Johnson was chosen to make the formal presentations to executives about how the university would use their donations.

“He showed that we had the support at the top of the university. That's very important,” Dr. Green said.

University officials hope the program will continue to develop as a technical specialty that provides well-educated graduates for Anchorage businesses.

Dr. Johnson knows how the intersection of Interstates 80/90 (the Ohio Turnpike) and I-75 and the Maumee River are important to the business community in the Toledo area. He said he would like to explore how to model a program at UT that is similar to the global supply network he helped develop at UAA.

However, he recognizes that boosting student enrollment, hiring faculty, and helping the school redefine its mission are the first priorities he'll face as the new president.

Dr. Johnson believes he'll bring a little bit of the spirit from the 49th state with him, a fighting spirit that is not deterred by Alaska's limited winter daylight.

“Alaska is a can-do kind of place. The university reflects that kind of can-do spirit,” he said. “People have taken on big ideas and taken on things you wouldn't do in the Lower 48. It's been great for me to be a part of it.”

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