UA Jim Johnsen Press Conference

UA President Jim Johnsen holds a press conference to address Gov. Dunleavy's budget cuts to the university Wednesday afternoon, July 10, 2019 in the UAF Butrovich Building.

Updated 6:25 p.m.: University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen has resigned. The announcement comes just days after the UA Faculty Union board of directors issued a petition calling for Johnsen's resignation amid controversy over his recent bid for a leadership position at an outside university.

Vice President Michelle Rizk will serve as acting president effective immediately until an interim president is named. Rizk serves as the vice president of university relations, chief budget and strategy officer and system liaison for facilities and land management.

Johnsen will remain available to "assist with the transition" until July 1, according to a Monday news release.

It remains unknown what career choice he will make next. Just weeks ago, the now former president was the sole finalist in a nationwide search to fill the position of president at the University of Wisconsin.

However, after strong pushback from thousands of faculty, staff and students at the Midwest university system, Johnsen pulled his name. But not before participating in a public forum with UW members during which he made a few comments leaders of the UA faculty union took issue with.

Union Director Abel Bult-Ito specifically pointed to Johnsen's "disparaging" of Alaskans during the interview in which Johnsen said he appreciated how Wisconsonites chip in to support their university while Alaskans do not pay taxes and "expect a handout each year."

Johnsen's looking for another job amid crisis at his own university and then returning to the university "pretending nothing happened" when he was rejected in Wisconsin, didn't sit right with Bult-Ito.

Johnsen issued a statement Monday, shortly after the announcement of his resignation was made, acknowledging the challenges he faced in governing the university but giving no mention to the controversy leading up to the call for his stepping down.

“It has been a real challenge leading the university over the last five years, but we made a lot of progress, too," Johnsen said. "Looking forward, there is no institution more important for creating opportunities for Alaskans than the university.”

UA Board of Regents Chair Sheri Buretta noted in an email to university faculty and staff that the decision was mutual.

“While the board understands that a change in leadership can be unsettling, it is confident that this decision, though difficult, is the correct one for the university,” Buretta wrote. “We ask the university community to recognize that the state and university’s current fiscal situation requires significant change.

"To thrive, UA must come together to address our significant challenges – working to transform, reversing declining enrollment, and adapting to declining state support," she wrote. "The board also asks our community to move forward together and to work with the board and university leadership as we address these challenges.”

Johnsen resigned before his five-year contract is up –– it was set to end later this year –– but will leave the university with a sizable exit package.

"The severance agreement and release between President Johnsen and the board provides for an orderly and amicable transition and is consistent with the terms of the president's employment contract, including six months' pay in lieu of notice, cash out of accrued and unused annual leave up to 240 hours, payment of the past due FY19 performance bonus and the FY20 performance bonus (up to $75,000/year)," UA spokeswoman Roberta Graham confirmed in a Monday afternoon email.

The announcement of Johnsen's resignation was made after a Monday emergency meeting of the board that was largely held in executive session. Similar emergency meetings were held June 10, 16, 17 and 18, all largely made up of executive sessions not available for public view.

Regents will appoint an interim president by July 15, according to Buretta, after consulting with chancellors and other governance leaders.

A formal search to fill the position will begin later this year.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a statement Monday afternoon acknowledging Johnsen's resignation and thanking him for "his service to higher education and to Alaska."

Dunleavy, who last year proposed cutting state funding for the university by 41%, said he was committed to helping the university continue to provide "educational services" to Alaskans.

The massive budget cut was narrowly avoided after former Regent Chair John Davies signed a compact with the governor agreeing to a defunding plan that would cut $70 million in state funding for the university over three years as opposed to Dunleavy's originally proposed cut of $135 million in one budget cycle.

Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Adam Wool, who represents the district which includes the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, said in a Monday afternoon statement he felt the criticism toward Johnsen was "misguided."

"He has been dealt a tough hand since he arrived at UA, especially the past two years, and has tried to implement the needed changes," Wool said. "I feel that more funding certainly would've helped but the entire higher education industry is going through massive changes and we need to keep that in mind going forward."

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.