UAA is a unique institution in many ways. It is the largest in the University of Alaska system but not the flagship. It boasts a significant population of non-traditional and international students, as well as an active faculty that engages executives in sometimes dramatic ways. UAA also remains largely dependent on a fickle state legislature for its funding, where next year’s appropriation could be radically different from this year’s.
Given all of these realities, finding a suitable chancellor is a daunting task. But when UA President Jim Johnsen announced Cathy Sandeen as the new chancellor, this university obtained exactly what it needed. Sandeen brings the experience, prudence and communicative skills that UAA needs in its executive functions.
Sandeen will begin working at UAA on Sept. 15, and she will bring with her a wealth of experience.
According to her Curriculum Vitae, Sandeen has worked in a variety of directorial roles since the 90s, including assistant dean, dean, vice president and chancellor. The fact that all of these roles are executive is extremely important. Sandeen is not just an operator in higher education; she is a leader. Her most recent position as chancellor for the University of Wisconsin Colleges had her managing an institution with nearly twice as many faculty as UAA. Her transition here will include a smaller purview, but no less challenging in its own right.
This university’s administrative structure can be rigid at times, functioning sort of like a multi-layered command system rather than a fluid educational environment. Unlike UAA’s previous chancellor and UA’s previous president, Sandeen’s predominant experience was fostered in higher education rather than the military. She has helped manage an administrative restructuring process before. She can do the same with UAA.
Having previously worked through a restructuring process, Sandeen publicly demonstrated an appreciation for fiscal prudence that will be essential for her role at UAA. The University of Wisconsin endured its own array of legislative budget cuts starting in 2015. Sandeen will witness similar events in Alaska, where the legislature suffers from chronic inaction on long-term budgeting. In fact, being a chancellor in Alaska means doing something that no other university considers to be relevant: checking the price of oil. That speaks volumes to what kind of fiscal waves Sandeen will have to endure during her time here.
Thankfully, she recognizes fiscal realities. The faculty and students who are affected by her decisions will resist budgetary cuts and reforms. But a good leader sometimes has to pull up her sleeves and work the numbers until the balance sheet is consistent with demands set by the regents. Anything less is just kicking the can down the road.
Finally, Sandeen has the communicative skills that will make her UAA chancellorship all the more successful. She has a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and a doctorate in communication, among her other educational achievements. She is well-spoken during public broadcasts, and she makes a special effort to produce custom videos where she shares her thoughts on an issue or welcomes her new Alaskan coworkers and students. Communicative skills are important for a chancellor because it helps them collect feedback, set expectations, maintain morale and explain unpleasant but necessary decisions. This is uniquely pertinent to Alaska’s volatile fiscal environment, where all four of those categories are adversely affected. Sandeen will also be well suited for attending certain student events, such as USUAA’s Chat with the Chancellor or Little Black Dress Doesn’t Mean Yes. She can speak and engage with students, demonstrating that UAA’s executives are approachable and cognizant about non-administrative issues.
Sandeen has all of the right ingredients for UAA’s new chancellor. She is knowledgeable, frugal and proficient. Best of all, she can bring fresh ideas to an Alaskan university that often struggles with adaptability. Cathy Sandeen is exactly what UAA needs.