The next president of the University of Alaska Statewide System of Higher Education should do three things and be two things.
The three things are: enhance the image of our University, enhance the core functions and enhance the funding.
If you ask ten people across America to name ten things they think of when they hear the name “Alaska,” within those 100 answers would not be the response: “Its great universities.”
That’s too bad, because we do have excellent faculty teaching and researching in outstanding programs within some quite decent facilities. We have a strong and resourceful support staff and administration.
We have a diverse selection of programs. Yet students don’t come here to obtain an inexpensive, high quality college education. People come here for snow, jobs, moose and mountains.
The next president needs to enhance our image in a profound and positive manner so that our image comports with our reality.
By enhancing the core, I mean that the next President should understand and be committed to the idea that universities are the only institutions in our society that have as their purpose to examine, question and research without boundaries. We also teach people how to do things, but our most important and unique calling is to teach people to think.
A President needs to understand that training people to do the jobs at hand will mean the university system is immediately useful, but to teach people to create the jobs, explore the ideas, and invent what no one has yet thought of is what universities do at their core. It’s why we exist and there is no substitute for focusing on that core responsibility in society.
Getting enough money is going to be a critical and central part of the next President’s job. The statewide system’s annual budget is not yet a billion dollars, but it will be during the next president’s tenure. And that’s just if we maintain our current status.
It says nothing about the long-term survival of the university. I often think of Pittsburgh in this context. That city in western Pennsylvania was long a resource extraction community. When the resources were gone, the city remained.
One important reason Pittsburgh is now a burgeoning home to artistic endeavors and civilized discourse is that the resource extractors built universities. Pittsburgh is home to several wonderful institutions of higher education and attracts people from all over the world to live there because of its appreciation of culture and diversity.
The next President must be ready, willing and able to seek endowment level funding from the companies and the state that benefit from current resource extraction.
The next President will best be able to do those three things if he or she is two things: an academic and an Alaskan. I’m not saying that we should always and only consider someone from Alaska who has a strong academic background.
Indeed, our current system president, Mark Hamilton, has served us extraordinarily well.
I am saying that we’ve never hired someone with an Alaskan academic background.
We send a subtle yet distinct message to all Alaskans, especially our youth, when our top jobs routinely go to those from elsewhere. We send an equally clear message to our university communities when those without an academic background fill our top jobs.
The next President ought to embody a clear and positive message: academics matter. So do Alaskans.
Bob Congdon is an attorney and a Professor Emeritus at UAA. He was also a former elected statewide faculty union president.