Monday, March 01, 2010

UA Presidential Search - Speed Dating

[UPDATE March 19: All the posts on the UA President search and the APU president search can be found here.]

Last week I heard people say that Sen. Gary Stevens was on the short list for the UA President Search.  Then over the weekend I learned that Gregg Erickson's [Rebecca Braun's] Alaska Budget Report had listed six finalists.  (Let me remind readers that I'm a retired professor at UAA and have been through the process of president and chancellor searches a number of times.)  Progressive Alaska has posted a 'commentary' from two UAF faculty members assigned to Kotzebue that says that the University has been slow to share with the university community the list of finalists, even though a list was leaked [published in] through the Alaska Budget Review. (This is a subscription newsletter, so I can't link to it.)

Let's put this all in context.  The University is supposed to be an academic institution.  Traditionally university system presidents and campus chancellors are recognized scholars AND administrators.  They usually have PhD's.  And lots of experience in universities.  At the moment, none of the top positions in the University of Alaska is held by someone with a PhD.

President Hamilton is a retired Army General with a Masters Degree in English.  UAF Chancellor Rogers has a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Harvard (my field), UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer, has a J.D. cum laude from the University of Wisconsin Law School.  UAS Chancellor John Pugh has an MSW  (Masters of Social Work) from the University of Texas, Austin.

All three Chancellors have extensive careers in the state of Alaska.  Rogers graduated from UAF and is married to a UAF graduate.  He's worked in administrative positions at the University and been a state legislator.  Ulmer was mayor of Juneau, in the state legislature, and Lt. Governor of Alaska.  Pugh has been Director of the Division of Family and Youth Services, State of Alaska, then Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

My academic field is public administration, so I'm strongly supportive of people who have had good administrative experience.  It is critical for the top administrator of a University.  But so is academic experience.  The Chancellor and President are the heads of organizations made of teacher/scholars.  Going through the career path of an academic so that you understand the rigors of academic research and the joys and frustrations of teaching is critical too.  I'm not one of the purists who insist on PhD's for all the heads of the campus or the system if they have unique qualifications.

However, to have all four of the top positions held by people who have not been faculty skews the balance way off.

It is also true that before President Hamilton, the university had gone a long time without budget increases.  Hamilton turned that around pretty quickly with a powerful presentation that he'd tried out around the state before taking it down to Juneau.  By the time he got before the legislators he'd heard all the questions people might ask and had convincing data rich responses to any question the legislators could throw at him.  As an ex-military man of Republican leanings, he was a match for the Republican legislature and began bringing budget increases back home from Juneau.  Budgets are important.

And in my personal experiences with him (I was a union grievance representative) I was always impressed with his willingness to listen and to respond reasonably.  I didn't do it often, but when I sent him a detailed email, I would get an equally detailed and thoughtful email in return, promptly.

He received an Academic Freedom award in 2002 from the conservative National Academy of Scholars.  More recently there has been dispute about faculty member Dr. Richard Steiner's being taken off NOAA projects because of alleged improper advocating. 

UAA faculty have chafed under characterizations attributed to Hamilton that UAF should be the doctoral degree granting campus and UAA was more of a community college, though UAA  had more students get graduate degrees than UAF.

That's some of the backdrop to the current presidential search.  I cannot recall exactly how the last presidential search was conducted, though I know that traditionally, Chancellor searchers have included search committees made up a wide spectrum of faculty, community members, and even students.

This search appears to have been conducted in a much more closed nature.  The University website has a link to a calendar for the search, but the calendar only has campus wide meetings for faculty, students, and staff to give input - last September.

Two hours and 45 minutes on September 16 in Fairbanks.
Two hours on September 18 in Anchorage.
Two hours on September 29 in Juneau (with video conference links to Ketchikan and Sitka)

That doesn't seem like a lot of time to get feedback on such an important decision. 

There's nothing after that.  I don't know if it's just that the website wasn't updated or that was it for public input.  In any case, if more input was wanted, it would have been helpful to keep the website updated.

So, the names listed on the Alaska Budget Report last week were, according to a guest post at Progressive Alaska by Kotzebue based University of Alaska faculty Susan B. Andrews and John Creed:
  • Gary Stevens, 68, State Senate President and retired UA history professor

  • Sally Johnstone, 60, VP for Academic Affairs, Winona State University in Minnesota

  • Patrick Gamble, 65, Alaska Railroad Corp. President/CEO
  • Jim Johnsen, 52, a Senior VP for Doyon, Ltd. and former aide to Mark Hamilton 

  • John Pugh, 64, UAS Chancellor since 1999
The Andrews/Creed post questioned why the University wasn't releasing the list of names since it had already been leaked [publicized] by Gregg Erickson on Thursday.

Well, Sunday afternoon, university faculty got emails with the list of finalists and the schedules for meeting the President candidates.

Date: Sun, Feb 28, 2010 at 4:20 PM
Subject: [UANews-L] CORREX UA Board of Regents announces finalists for
UA president

CORRECTED VERSION--please disregard previous one

For Immediate Release
Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010

UA Board of Regents announces finalists for UA president Campus visits begin Monday

The University of Alaska Board of Regents announces the following finalists for the UA president position:

•       Lisa A. Rossbacher, president of Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia, part of the University System of Georgia, since 1998; and a professor of geology;

•       Patrick K. Gamble, president and chief executive officer of the Alaska Railroad Corp. since 2001; and a retired four-star Air Force general;

•       and John R. Pugh, chancellor of the University of Alaska Southeast since 1999, former UAS dean of faculty, education, liberal arts and sciences; and former state Health and Social Services commissioner.

Photos and complete resumes of each finalist are posted on the board’s presidential search website, at

Board Chair Cynthia Henry said the selection process is challenging. “We received many solid applications from well-qualified individuals, both within the state and from the Lower 48,” Henry said. “It’s been a difficult and lengthy process, narrowing the field down to these few. Now we look forward to hearing from our various stakeholders as we move to the next stage of our search---selecting a president to lead the University of Alaska System.”

The finalists will begin a tour of the UA system’s three largest campuses Monday morning, providing the candidates with numerous opportunities to meet students, faculty, staff, community members, business owners, alumni, local officials and elected local and state leaders.

The board encourages members of the public to attend the evening public presentations in each community as well, though public members are welcome at campus sessions if evening presentations are not convenient.

Feedback forms will be available at all venues for university stakeholders and the public to provide opinions on the three finalists.

The finalists will visit the University of Alaska Fairbanks tomorrow, Monday, March 1; the University of Alaska Anchorage Tuesday, March 2; and the University of Alaska Southeast Wednesday, March 3. See the above website for detailed itineraries of each campus visit.

“We want to hear from our university stakeholders as well as the public about who they think could best lead this complex institution,” said the board’s vice chair, Tim Brady. “UA offers everything from workforce training certificates to four-year degrees, master’s degrees, doctoral degrees and post-doctoral research opportunities. The UA system provides a $1 billion influx annually into Alaska’s economy and is responsible for educating and training some 30,000 students each year—most of whom are Alaskans. We want a well-qualified president to follow the fine leadership and enthusiasm we’ve seen under Mark Hamilton the last 12 years.”

Hamilton announced last June his intention to retire in 2010. He and his wife Patty plan to remain in Alaska, but hope to spend more time with their children and grandchildren, as well as enjoy more opportunities to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors.

The board will consult with its statewide advisory committee on Thursday (for membership of that panel, check the board’s presidential search website). The regents will then meet again March 15 to discuss and possibly choose a final candidate. A public announcement would follow sometime after that.

For information on the search, visit the Board of Regents’ website at

Let's look at this closer:

The finalists will begin a tour of the UA system’s three largest campuses Monday morning, providing the candidates with numerous opportunities to meet students, faculty, staff, community members, business owners, alumni, local officials and elected local and state leaders.
But the schedules on the links seem to contradict this characterization of "numerous opportunities."

In past Chancellor searches, candidates had two or three days on campus, and candidates were almost never on campus the same time.  Faculty and students and community members and staff had multiple opportunities for in-depth interaction with candidates during the visits - there were even opportunities for one-on-one visits in some cases.  Meetings in the past allowed each constituency to meet separately with the candidates so they could go into depth about issues of special concern to them.  There were also more generalized meetings where the audiences were more mixed.

APU, the private university down the street from UAA, also had a President Search this school year.  They had each candidate up for several days of intense interaction with faculty, students, and alumni and donors. 

But in UA's search, all three candidates will be on campus at the same time and constituents won't have a lot of time to get to know them. 

Each group will have 45 minutes to meet and get a sense of the candidates in Fairbanks Monday. 

And there will be another 40 minutes in the evening for the community members.  There will be an extra 40 minutes to talk with Patrick K. Gamble who is the only one to have a slot with no one else meeting at the same time.

The announcement went out Sunday afternoon, so it might make it into the newspapers Monday morning.  And the meetings are already starting Monday afternoon in Fairbanks. 

Tuesday is UAA Day.  Five constituent groups have been identified to have 45 minutes with the candidates:
  • Governance Groups
  • Students 
  • Faculty and staff
  • Alumni
  • USUAA (student government)
Presumably if someone didn't have any classes to go to, they could see two of the candidates twice.

There's a two hour community reception at the Convention Center from 6-8pm too. 

In Juneau, there is a lot more time on the ground.  Here, the candidates will meet with specific academic units.  The Schedule is too big for me to get you a legible screen shot, but you can get the pdf yourself here.  So each of these groups is scheduled for 30 minutes with each candidate:
  • School of Arts  &  Sciences
  • School of  Education
  • Student  Government
  • School of Career Education
  • Faculty Senate
  • School of Management
  • Juneau Campus Advisory Council
  • Staff Council
Plus each candidate has 45 minutes at an Open Forum.  So presumably, people in Juneau, after spending their allotted 90 minutes could get another 120 minutes by visiting other sessions.  Plus another hour at an open session.  That's a little more time to assess a candidate.  Plus there are two and a half hours more in the evening at Centennial Hall for "the Juneau Community and Legislature."

So Juneau, where people presumably know one of the candidates pretty well - UAS Chancellor John Pugh - gets the most time to see the candidates and in smaller groups.  But they also get the candidates at the end of a three day whirlwind tour.  They'll be pretty tired by the time they get to Juneau.  Assuming the airport isn't fogged in Wednesday.

Compared to past searches, at least for Chancellors (as I said, I just don't remember what happened when Hamilton was hired), the Board of Regents is holding this decision pretty close to the vest.  While Pugh is a known commodity - at least in Juneau - and Gamble (head of the Alaska Railroad and former Air Force General) has been in Alaska long enough for people to be able to check up on him, Dr. Rossbacher is pretty much an unkown entity.

[UPDATE March 8:  An Anchorage Daily News article says that in January 1998 the Board of Regents held an emergency meeting after Pres. Komisar announced his resignation, and said they would do the search themselves.  There were two finalists who each spent their own day on campus.  The article said this was a break from previous searches where a committee made up of some regents and university employee and public members conducted the search.  The article is archived and may require a password.]

There are other questions that come to mind:

Did Erikson get the list wrong last Thursday? (One of the finalists was NOT on his list)
Or did the Regents shuffle it to make it look like he was wrong?

My guess is that Gamble is the designated candidate.  They really like Generals.  The approach to academia in recent years, has been to apply a market model to universities and to see students as "customers."    I'm a very strong advocate for faculty who make their students a high priority and who get to know them well enough to move them from where they are to where they need to be understand and master the concepts and skills.  But I don't buy the logical next step of "the customer is always right." It simply does not work in an academic setting.

The closed process with just a short window of access to only the final three candidates has several potential negative consequences:
1.  There isn't much time for faculty, staff, students, the media, and community members to do any independent background checking on the candidates.  As the George Sullivan example (see 3rd paragraph from the bottom) from the early 80s proves, this can be costly.
2.  The new president is going to have to work a lot harder to win the confidence of the faculty, students, and staff, simply because the process has been so exclusionary, with this brief show and tell at the end.
3.  It suggests to faculty (and probably the others) that they aren't taken seriously enough to give them a real chance to be involved in this process.  

On the other hand, sometimes the best procedure comes up with nothing good, and bad procedure comes up with winners.  Though I don't think the odds favor this.  UA searches have been known to drag on forever.  In this process the email suggests the decision could come in by March 15.  (Don't these people read Shakespeare?  I just saw Julius Ceasar knifed last week at Juneau's Theater in the Rough.)

Even APU, which had an expedited search process, didn't skimp when it came to introducing the candidates to their community.  Which all leads me to believe that this is just for show and they pretty much know who they want.


  1. Interesting analysis. A couple of points:

    Alaska Budget Report has been owned, published and edited by Rebecca Braun for the last four years. I t is embarrassing when the newsletter is identified as "Gregg Erickson's."

    I did not "leak" the information on the candidates, nor do I think any of the people I talked to could be described as leakers. They had all heard rumors which they passed on to me. I just followed up on each of the rumored candidates. The candidates, when contacted, responded truthfully about their own candidacy. They could have declined comment, but who would do that if they were NOT a candidate?

    Gregg Erickson

  2. I think you are right on the money with your final point. I wonder if the total expenditures put into a "nationwide" presidential search could have been put to better use.

    I simply cannot understand the speed at which this is going or the quagmire of released candidate names.

    On a far different note, I wish I would have found your blog sooner. Great information and commentary.


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