New Interim Chancellor discusses ‘pivotal year’
Newly appointed Interim Chancellor Dana Thomas left retirement to rejoin the UAF community in what he considers to be a vitally important year for both the UA system and the state as a whole.
“UAF is my home in a lot of ways. I earned my bachelor’s degree here. I was on the faculty for years,” Thomas said. “And I saw this as a pivotal year, one of historical changes for UAF’s both history and future, and I knew I could contribute.”
Thomas was appointed to replace former Interim Chancellor Mike Powers in July 2016, though he did not begin work at the university until Aug. 14. As the position of interim chancellor is temporary, Thomas’ term will end on June 30, 2017. President Jim Johnsen chose to appoint Thomas as interim chancellor rather than permanently filling the position because a new accreditation model for the UA system is under advisement.
Thomas had been retired for a little over a year following his work as UA Vice President for Academic Affairs and Research, which he began in May 2012 under former UA President Pat Gamble. Before that Thomas served as Vice Provost.
Born and raised in Fairbanks, Thomas feels a special connection to his alma mater where he received his undergraduate degree in biology and served on the faculty for more than 30 years.
“It was difficult for me to sit back and watch when I knew I could contribute,” Thomas said. “I was happily retired. I was really enjoying myself, but I have a lot of friends and colleagues here. My wife and I both had very rewarding and successful careers here. And we thought we could contribute to the conversation about this year.”
Thomas expressed he was particularly drawn to rejoin the ranks of UAF administration due to the “exceptional leadership team” he sees at the head of the university.
“Part of the reason I was willing to do it was because we have a really good team frankly, a very good group of students, a very good group of faculty,” Thomas said. “That made the decision easier because I knew there were people I could rely on to help guide the institution.”
During his time on the UAF faculty, Thomas spent four years overseas working with the United States Agency for International Development. He spent two years setting up the first national database on agriculture in Yemen, as well as another two years creating fisheries sampling schemes and databases in Oman. Thomas said his travels allowed him to bring global perspective back to his teaching position at UAF.
Because of his travels abroad and throughout the rest of the country, Thomas has been able to recognize both positives and negatives in the state’s university system.
“When you do that you get to see how other universities operate differently from your institution and you get to get ideas about potential improvements,” Thomas said. “You also recognize ‘Geeze we’re doing excellent job in these areas there’s no reason to change it.’ You get both strengths and weaknesses in reflection because of that experience. That’s been a valuable element of my background.”
Similarly to the sentiments expressed by President Johnsen at the public forum held on Sept. 1, Thomas feels the biggest challenge facing the university today is the struggle between maintaining UAF’s mission of being a top tier research university and sustaining significant budget cuts.
“It’s about identifying what we want to look like when we come out of Strategic Pathways and out of any further budget reductions,” Thomas said.
While research is at the forefront of the university, it is not the only valuable program, Thomas said.
“We need to keep particular strength in STEM because that’s the key identity element as a research school, but we also need to offer a broad enough range of programs across liberal arts, humanities, social sciences, fine and performance art, because we have students who don’t want to relocate,” Thomas said. “They’re place-committed so we need to offer a broad range for that collection of students. That’s particularly challenging with budget reductions of course.”
Ultimately, the programs that stay will have to be based on sufficient student demand, Thomas said.
In the long term, life would be better for everyone if Alaska were to switch to a more knowledge-based economy, which requires a strong and well rounded university, according to Thomas.
“We’ve been focused on natural resource extraction with relatively little value added to it,” Thomas said. “That is highly susceptible to natural resource demand, as we’ve seen with oil.”
UAF’s graduation rate has previously been relatively low. However, over the past several years, Thomas pointed out a significant upward trend. With the right moves this year, Thomas says that trend can and should continue but will take work across the university.
“Diversity in ideas always valuable to helping guide an institution,” Thomas said. “Your ideas are welcome. So engage, share your thoughts. Tell us what’s working well, what’s not working well and what needs to change.”