Friday Focus: Keep your eye on the prize, UAF

August 28, 2020

Tori Tragis

Chancellor Dan White. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.
Chancellor Dan White. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

— by Dan White, chancellor

Success in uncertain times requires being agile in our response to new opportunities and being innovative in our business model. Innovative thinking and agility are characteristics of a high-functioning organization. The application of these traits towards achieving important goals is what makes the organization what it is. For UAF, our mission is what we do — teaching, research and service. But our strategic goals are what we strive for — that is the prize:

  1. Modernize the student experience

  2. Solidify our global leadership in Alaska Native and Indigenous programs

  3. Achieve Tier 1 research status

  4. Transform UAF’s intellectual property development and commercialization enterprise

  5. Embrace and grow a culture of respect, diversity, inclusion and caring

  6. Revitalize key academic programs

These goals were launched before the budget crisis and before the pandemic. But now what? In this reduced budget and COVID-19-complicated environment, it would be easy to say that with everything going on we can’t focus on our strategic goals. I’d posit that this is precisely what we need to do right now. It is because we have so much uncertainty that we must focus on our goals. During a crisis we have many decisions to make and for me, keeping our eye on the prize helps guide these decisions. It helps us focus on what’s important, what we want to be, and where to put our innovative thinking and agility to service.

With respect to the budget shortfall, we have two non-mutually exclusive options, reduce expenses and grow revenues. We must do both but we have done much more of the former than the latter. As long as I can remember we have talked about growing revenue. When I was director of the Institute of Northern Engineering I had a poster on my wall titled “200 ways for universities to generate revenue.” It was forwarded to me by then Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Pat Pitney. As we enter the second year of the compact and as units across campus look for reductions, I have renewed my efforts on identifying activities that will generate new revenue. To be clear, however, it is not new revenue for the sake of new revenue or for the sake of going back to  the status quo, it is for the sake of achieving our goals, achieving what this great university can do. 

To those of you who contributed to strategic enrollment planning, you know that we are on the brink of a paradigm shift that will change the way UAF operates in the higher ed market. Those involved with strategic enrollment planning have seen what innovative thinking can get us. The Nanook Pledge was developed out of SEP as a way to guarantee students scholarships for four years, and students are responding to this effort by enrolling. Growing enrollment grows revenue. And to that end, new revenues can can go towards modernizing the student experience, solidifying our global leadership in Alaska Native and Indigenous programs, achieving tier 1 research, and so on. 

This year, UAF will be investing some reserves into expanding the Nanook Pledge to further transform our enrollment picture. We don’t just want to create a bigger pipeline for students to enter. We want a pipeline where people are drawn to the great ideas and ideals of UAF, and people who want to be part of something bigger (like the Times Higher Education #1-ranked U.S. university and #35 globally when compared against UN global sustainability goals).

The other way to keep eye on the prize? Train our eyes forward. Look forward by not looking back. I wrote about this back on Nov. 22 when I said that bringing along outdated “stuff” like holding on to outdated space (just in case), causes us to look back, and looking back means we are not looking forward. I continue to look at UAF facilities around the state and feel that we have opportunity. Opportunity to retrain our vision forward and spend less time, money and effort on holding, financing, cleaning, heating, lighting and cooling space that we don’t need (today). We might need it in the future, but the future will be different and I am convinced that by then we will need something different. I often hear that we would get out of the space but for “fill in the blank.” But for what? Often it is “but for” smaller, more efficient, more modern space to relocate to. To this end we will invest some reserves on reconfiguring smaller, high-value space to get rid of larger, lower-value space towards the goal of reducing expenses. Every square foot we are not dealing with is saving money, and jobs. More importantly, it allows us to keep our eye on the prize: our mission and our strategic goals. 

By keeping our eye on the prize, others will notice. I want to draw particular note is that we are celebrating the recent success of a 30% increase in philanthropic gifts raised for UAF in fiscal year 2020 (congratulations to Kate Ripley and her team). But no one gives to universities because of need. They give because they believe in the cause, the mission and our goals. They give when they know that we have our eye on the prize and that their gift will help get us there. 

UAF has a long and important relationship with the Murdock Charitable Trust. Just yesterday the trust called to say that they will award $325,700 to Russ Hopcroft and his team of researchers for their project titled "High-resolution coupling of ocean physics and chemistry to plankton distribution." The trust believes in UAF because we have our eyes on the prize. My thanks to them for their continued confidence in our outstanding faculty!  

We have the opportunity, UAF. 

Keep your eye on the prize, and thanks for choosing UAF.

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week. On occasion, a guest writer is asked to contribute a column.