Analysis: Is the chancellor hanging off a glass cliff?

Most people have heard of the glass ceiling; it’s the concept that women are seldom offered or elected to senior level positions. Chancellor Cathy Sandeen has clearly overcome this barrier. However, there’s a more nefarious phenomenon that seems to be acting itself out during her chancellorship: is Cathy Sandeen hanging off of a glass cliff?

The glass cliff is the idea the women will only be offered leadership roles in a time of crisis for the organization. Oftentimes, they are put in positions where they are leading a failing company, which further entrenches the idea that women are bad leaders, when in fact women are more likely to be hired for an executive position at a failing organization than a thriving one.

This just may be the case for Cathy Sandeen.

Cathy Sandeen formerly served as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension. She began at UAA on Sept. 15. Photo courtesy of Cathy Sandeen.

In May, Sandeen was invited to take on the position of chancellor of UAA, a role she stepped into in September. At the time, things at UAA weren’t too bad. Sure, enrollment was low and state financial support wasn’t as high as it was in 2014, but by all means, UAA was staying afloat.

Then the November earthquake hit. UAA rolled with it and was well regarded for the open communication and information they released on social media and through email.

This came in stark contrast to the beginning of spring semester when students found out via KTUU Channel 2 News that UAA’s School of Education had lost accreditation for its initial licensure programs. That weekend, there was radio silence.

Then, Gov. Dunleavy released a budget that cut the university system exponentially in February. Shortly after, KTVA Channel 11 News reported that a long time professor had sexually assaulted students for decades with few consequences. Again, UAA was quiet.

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Finally, in April, the Board of Regents voted to discontinue the School of Education, a decision that Sandeen had opposed.

So, after all these events, is Chancellor Sandeen hanging off of a glass cliff?

Sandeen has been blamed for several of the breaking news situations that have occurred over the last year —  like the loss of accreditation in the School of Education — despite the fact that she was not the chancellor during most of the reaccreditation period. That’s her glass cliff. While she may not have been responsible for putting the university in this mess, she is now in charge of getting us out.

While there was some initial blowback to the chancellor’s first comments on accreditation, Sandeen has taken responsibility for the program and proven that her administration will be more transparent. Few students have attended forum-like Chats with the chancellor, but Sandeen has been able to reach a larger UAA audience through posting video updates on social media for most major issues.

As a representative of the institution, Sandeen has also been proactive about writing letters to the editor to the Anchorage Daily News and The Northern Light. While the public campaigning seems to be her specialty, Sandeen still has a long way to go to prove that UAA is not a failing institution under her lead. These next few years will be transformative for the university. Sandeen will likely take part in discussions on how to prevent programmatic accreditation losses in the future, raise revenue that is likely no longer coming from a conservative state government and continue to interest Alaska high schoolers in a Seawolf degree.

Most people their first year at a new job get the luxury of sitting back and learning about how an office is typically run before they have to step in and make big decisions. Sandeen didn’t get a year. She had, at best, three months to familiarize herself with UAA before the university put her to the test.

She may be on the precipice of a glass cliff, but if this year is any indication, she’s definitely not staying there.