Picking a Permanent President

By Mike Flunker, Editor-in-Chief

The University of Alaska Board of Regents unanimously voted to appoint Pat Pitney UA President on Feb. 25. The vote came at the end of a two-day meeting. Pitney is the first permanent female president of the UA system and has been interim president since former UA President Jim Johnsen resigned in June 2020. 

“Pat Pitney is the epitome of cooperation, collaboration, and partnership,” said Regent Lisa Parker.

This sentiment was echoed during the meeting by other regents, faculty, staff, and student governance groups. Pitney has guided the university through most of the pandemic and state budget cuts. Not only is she the first female president, she’s also an Olympic gold medalist. People like Pitney. 

However, her appointment is not without controversy. To the governance groups of the UA system, like the Faculty Alliance and the UA Coalition of Student Leaders, the vote represents an overstep of the Board of Regents’ power. The groups made multiple resolutions and requests to pause the process of appointing Pitney permanent president. 

“It isn’t about the person you seek to appoint, but the process you are choosing. The policy states that students and staff are vital to the operation of the university and must be an integral part of governance,” said Shanone Tejada, chair of the UA Coalition of Student Leaders. 

While no one seems to have a problem with Pitney, many have a problem with how the BOR proceeded with the appointment. Governance groups cited the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities policy that states “the institution’s decision-making structures and processes, which are documented and publicly available, must include provisions for the consideration of the views of faculty, staff, administrators, and students on matters in which each has a direct and reasonable interest.”

During the meeting Tejada pointed out that regents have repeatedly talked about moving forward together and being unified with governance groups, but “there is no togetherness if the board acts unilaterally,” he said. 

The UA Staff Alliance agreed. 

“Your policy promises shared governance. Multiple requests have been made to pause the action on this motion. This is not about Pat Pitney; it is about how we were never consulted. We could have had great conversations if you had reached out to us,” Staff Alliance chair Juella Sparks told the board. 

Nine resolutions opposing the direct appointment came from staff and faculty alliances, all three universities, and student governance groups. UA Faculty Alliance chair Julie Maier told the regents the resolutions reflected the governance groups’ desire to follow NWCCU policy. 

“None of those resolutions or memos had anything to do with the person or the job itself. It has been a great job done. It is the process,” Maier said. 

Students across the UA system are concerned about the lack of input they had in this process, according to Student Regent and UAS Student Body President Kali Spencer. 

“I am deeply grateful for the work that Pat Pitney has done to advocate for and support the  university in her time as interim. That being said, though, I’d like to express on behalf of the students the disappointment held surrounding the lack of shared governance in this process, Spencer said. “They’re concerned that this could set a precedent and lead to a new standard for how these sorts of decisions are made and could cut students out of that process.”

The Board of Regents argued that Pitney’s direct appointment won’t set a precedent. Instead, they said they seized a rare opportunity to establish stability in uncertain times. According to testimonies during the meeting by Regents John Davies and Karen Perdue, the UA system is in a better financial place now than it has been in the last five years. 

“I asked myself, how did we put ourselves in the strongest possible position in the external environment to gain advantage in this crucial time? I conclude we look external and internally where we are, and shore up what we can do to put ourselves in a good position. That includes having a permanent president, not having a lame duck president,” Perdue said. 

Perdue said taking time for a national search and collecting feedback from the UA system would cause UA to miss a window of opportunity. A search for candidates would likely take a few months, she said, and collecting feedback from students during summer would be difficult.

Davies recognized the benefit of having Pitney continue to lead during the “really crucial time period” of the next several months. 

“To ask our president to do that in the mode of interim president isn’t fair to her,” Davies said. 

Pitney’s appointment was a unanimous decision. Regents cited Pitney’s continued service and the stability she has provided the UA system during the pandemic. Governance groups cited their support for Pitney and the recognition of the good work she’s done, but expressed great concern for the process. 

Article 1 of the UA System Governance Council states that it is the intent of the UA BOR “that the faculty, staff and students share in the governance of the university.” What good are policies and guidelines if they aren’t being followed? Students, staff, and faculty will be watching future board decisions to make sure everyone is heard. 

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