Focus on the Presidency: Changing Strategic Direction

By Patrick K. Gamble    //    Volume 23,  Number 4   //    July/August 2015

The University of Alaska (UA) system consists of three separately accredited universities, with 13 community campuses and nearly 33,000 students. It is a land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant institution.

UA, with full support from the board of regents, is in the midst of a system-wide directional change, dubbed “Shaping Alaska’s Future” (SAF). Hundreds of inputs from members of our governance team, students, councils, committees, master plans, similar efforts by sister university systems, consultants, and legislators from over 80 statewide outreach sessions were distilled to five major “themes” containing 23 specific issues that UA needs to confront and the effects we hope to achieve.

The themes include student achievement and attainment; productive partnerships with Alaska’s schools; productive partnerships with public entities and private industries; research, development, and scholarship to enhance Alaska’s community and economic growth; and accountability to the people of Alaska. Issues include low recruitment, retention, and graduation rates, especially for the disadvantaged, minority populations, and Alaska Natives; deferred maintenance; and limited state investment in research and uncertain state funding for higher education. Effects include improving graduation rates, streamlining administrative processes, and providing better service to students.

We have developed an appreciation for how much the following influenced our overall process:

  • System Behavior: The UA Summit Team, comprising the three chancellors and three provosts from University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and University of Alaska Southeast, myself, and the vice president for academic affairs and research, is charged with taking up issues that cross university boundaries, such as financial aid and common calendar. Stand-alone or independent elements cannot make up a successful system. That said, there is a fine balance to be had in order not to usurp individual university prerogatives.
  • Core Competencies: Collectively, they are the unique and enduring operating properties of an institution: learning, critical thinking, citizenship, and the pursuit of a broad array of knowledge through faculty teaching excellence and world class research. They do not work well as solos, nor can they contribute much value if they cancel each other out when setting resourcing priorities.
  • Core Values: Without deeply meaningful institutional core values for collaboration—integrity, respect, services, and innovation—trust, essential to that collaboration, cannot thrive in a university system.

At the end of the day, our choices were made ever more complex by having to align with accreditation, board of regents’ policy, and legislative guidance. But we were convinced that this process would lead to a profound institutional effect spanning the entire UA system.

We invested heavily in leadership. From the very beginning, SAF’s commitment to growing leadership has been front and center. More than 140 leaders (including deans, directors, chancellors, and key staff at all three universities and statewide) have taken part in 360-degree assessments through the Center for Creative Leadership. UA’s commitment to developing leaders in all levels of engagement across our system is critical to ensuring that future generations of Alaskans have the opportunity to learn in a higher education environment that is second to none.

We are not on a fast track at UA. It might take three to five years to confirm that we are realizing the effects we sought. All along the way, we are communicating broadly and fully integrating the power of shared governance. We want SAF to motivate pride and loyalty without stifling individual university prerogatives to achieve the necessary outcomes. We must remain uncompromising in ensuring that the quality and excellence of one-on-one relationships currently enjoyed between teacher and learner are not lost. Once we see positive, steady improvements in student success and employee satisfaction, we will know that we have successfully modified our university system culture to embrace the new strategic direction, and settled on the right course for realizing the bright promise of significant postsecondary education improvements in Alaska.

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