Friday Focus: Leadership is all about balance

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

July 29, 2022

— By Dan White, chancellor

In a recent team-building meeting with the University of Alaska Fairbanks core leadership team (the Vice Chancellors, Executive Director for Advancement Taber and Executive Officer Conley), we each were given a set of five cards, each with one word on it. The words ranged from positive to negative with words such as cheerful, supportive, and toxic. We were each to choose a word that described our current state. In my deck of five was the word “balance.”

I chose balance. I find that much in leadership is a balancing act. It is about striking the right balance to do the most good for the most people. We can’t be everything to everyone but we can sure do a lot of good with the right balance. It is why I support collegiate athletics, the arts, and our rural colleges at the same time we are positioning to be a Tier 1 research university.

I sometimes reflect on when I was an engineering professor, bent on growing the engineering research and education programs here at UAF. I partnered with a colleague at University of Alaska Anchorage in this endeavor because lifting both programs seemed like a win-win. We met with UA System of Higher Education President Mark Hamilton about these goals. Soon enough, in what was a surprise to us and many, President Hamilton announced that UA would double the number of engineering graduates in five years. It was game on.

It was a grand challenge because doubling the number of graduates in five years meant we needed to double the number of incoming students in one year. We didn’t meet the goal in five years, but we got it done in eight – at UAA and UAF. As engineering grew I met with President Hamilton again and said we could do more. We were still not meeting the industry need in Alaska and it seemed like there was still an opportunity. I pitched that we double down on our commitment. His response was an unequivocal “No.” He said, “Dan, we are not the University of Engineering.” President Hamilton’s balance had been reached. We doubled and that was enough. There were other needs.

I find nearly everything in leadership (and life really) requires balance. As an example, we just finished our planning for the FY24 budget. The list of proposals for new funding exceeds our capacity by orders of magnitude, and that’s just with the great ideas. So how we balance funding needed for repairs, employee backfills, new hires, new initiatives and strategic priorities takes balance. Balancing not only our hopes and dreams but also the willingness of the governor and legislature to provide funding, the desires of our governing board, the president, and our partner universities in the UA System of Higher Education.

The COVID pandemic, another of our grand challenges, gave us another opportunity to find balance. I sent out a note last week changing our COVID-19 face coverings policy. It had not changed for four months and a lot has happened in the interim. The virus continues to evolve, testing, vaccination, and treatments have become ubiquitous, and as a consequence, the community norms have changed. Here too we have had to have a balanced approach.

As a final example, I received a serious complaint recently related to hurtful comments employees made toward other employees in a public meeting. In a review of the meeting in question, the things said were found to fall within the bounds of the university's free speech policy. The report went on to say, however, that technically allowable speech can still be detrimental to productive working relationships. It can harm relationships and hurt hard working and passionate colleagues.

To me, here we are in need of balance. Our policy may allow hurtful comments as free speech. But I think we each can take individual responsibility to balance this right with the need for good working relationships, good colleagues, and our collective interest in each other’s success. I frequently talk about the First Alaskans Institute dialogue agreements and what a wonderful touchstone they are for how we have productive relationships. Speaking with care for others is part of those agreements. 

Thanks for seeking balance in your everyday work for UAF.

Thanks for choosing UAF.

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF's leadership team every week.