Outside the Professional Studies Building on a crisp spring morning, Fran Ulmer kept warm by shaking hands. It was her first week as UAA’s new chancellor, and she was asked to speak to a group of kids to start off “I’m Going to College” day. Her part was to give an introductory speech in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium, but she decided to wait outside to watch the busloads of children arrive.
Following the somewhat sudden news of Chancellor Elaine Maimon’s departure, UA president Mark Hamilton asked Ulmer to serve as interim chancellor until a search for a permanent replacement could be made.
“I was asked if I would do it for a two-year period of time,” Ulmer said in a later interview. “Technically, I’m ‘interim’ in the sense that I have a two-year appointment . I am the chancellor while I’m here, so the term, I think, signals impermanence in a way that maybe isn’t good for the university. When I ask someone to make a major contribution to UAA, they’re going to feel better if I am ‘the chancellor’ even if we know that it’s a two-year commitment. It’s maybe more about semantics than it is about anything else.”
During any lull while waiting for the buses, she would go up and greet anyone she hadn’t met yet. She put up the collar on her suit jacket to fend off the morning chill.
“You’re smart, you have a stocking cap on,” she said as she introduced herself to a more warmly dressed group that had helped put the event together. “Thanks for doing what you’re doing today. Gotta get these kids excited about their possibilities, right?”
Hardly a moment went by without her meeting someone, or someone talking to her about this problem or that.
“It’s the first week; people just want to meet with me,” Ulmer said. “Maybe they want to tell me what they think. I don’t think every week will be like this.”
She said the first week felt like several weeks in one but that it wasn’t too overwhelming.
“I did have a few months, really, between when the president first asked me to do this and when I actually sat in that chair,” Ulmer said later. “So, I could spend time going back and forth, finishing up my job at ISER (Institute of Social and Economic Research) and getting to know this job.”
Ulmer’s resume shows a long history in public policymaking – in the Legislature, as mayor of Juneau, as lieutenant governor and as director of ISER – and her people skills were evident as she exchanged pleasantries with all those waiting outside for the buses, her smile and professionally polished tone never wavering. But she said she still didn’t know if she wanted the appointment to be long-term.
“One of my biggest concerns in taking on this job was the fact that I was getting further and further away from substantive issues, whether it’s energy, or climate change, or health care policy, or all those things. In a chancellor’s position, you’re pretty far away from all of that. You’re pretty focused on management,” Ulmer said.
After cutting her teeth on the first week of meetings, Ulmer got to chew on some meatier issues.
“I’ve come onboard right as we’re going through this budget process, right as we’re going through the finalizing of the strategic plan this summer – it’s good timing,” Ulmer said, “to not only help me with my understanding of what this organization’s all about and what its needs are, but also for me to be able to have some input and help shape it.”
While some had expressed concerns that the outgoing chancellor wouldn’t be at commencement, it actually served as a transition point for the two, as both were present. Ulmer said Maimon made the transition process easy on her.
“Elaine and I got along well; we were able to communicate openly. She made herself available to me,” Ulmer said. “I view my job as the interim chancellor, not so much to change what’s happening, but to build on what’s been happening for a long period of time.”
Finally, the buses of children started to arrive.
“All right, I’ll put down my collar now,” Ulmer said. “Probably not the right attire.”
After the children were led into the Wendy Williamson Auditorium and Ulmer was introduced, she took the stage to talk to the kids about the benefits of college and the importance of finding out what they wanted to do with their lives. Parts of her speech were echoed later when she talked about how she’ll decide whether or not she wants to apply for the permanent chancellor position.
“Everybody has their own skill sets and what it is that they are particularly good at. When you can match up what you care about – what you’re good at – with the mission of the organization . you should probably do that job and stay there,” Ulmer said. “I love the university mission. I love the idea of growing higher education in this state. But I also love research, and I also love a lot of other things. I think time will tell better than we know today whether it’s a good fit.”
Tara Sims contributed to this report.