Q and A Conversation with Chancellor John Pugh
Interview conducted and written by Rachel Voris
Chancellor Pugh was featured last week on the University of Alaska Southeast Egan Library Facebook page proudly holding a certificate for completing all the stations at an open house library event. His portrait smile is authentic. Standing next to Kristi Allen, library administrative secretary, the two look joyful almost as if they are on the brim of laughter.
And that’s just who Pugh is. It doesn’t matter what the event is. You’ll likely see Pugh there, along with his granddaughter and wife, sporting his favorite Ray Troll UAS logo wear happily engaging with others at UAS.
His approach to leadership is different. With a long history as a social worker, Pugh believes in the importance of communication, education and the need to serve those who he leads. He faces unique challenges and obstacles as chancellor, but for the last 13 years he has lead with success, working every day to continue the rich student learning experience in Southeast Alaska.
The History of Chancellor Pugh
Voice: Could you tell me a little bit about your personal life? Family, hobbies, what do you do for fun?
Pugh: Margret and I got married 37 years ago. We met in Anchorage and just celebrated our anniversary by going back to Denali where we honeymooned. We got a permit to go in this last week with friends, and we went 93 miles of road to Kantishna and had a great time. We saw brown bears, moose and sheep during the eleven hour trek.
I've been in Alaska so long, over 40 years. I consider it my home. I arrived in Anchorage as a captain in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Elmendorf. I’m another air force guy.
Both of our kids were born here. Our daughter, Beth Nordlund and her husband, Jim and their 10-year-old daughter, Ella, live in Anchorage. Our son and daughter-in-law and other granddaughter, Sophia live here in Juneau. My son unfortunately died last fall on Oct. 24 in a diving accident near Juneau, but his family now lives with us. Both of our granddaughters have savings accounts with the UA College Savings Plan, and I’m very committed to them going to college and hopefully to the University of Alaska.
Voice: Do they understand the role that you play—how big of a deal that you are?
Pugh: I don’t think my granddaughter in Anchorage does as much, but Sophia does because locally I’m involved in a lot of student and community activities. Sophia sees UAS as her campus too. She’s often in my office. Sophia wears UAS logo clothing, which I give to her on birthdays and at the holidays. Our logo wear is pretty cool. We have Ray Troll designed sweatshirts—have you seen them? —They’re great.
My son was in the UAF fisheries graduate program where he did research on shellfish and later purchased a commercial shellfish farm. He spent 10 years as a shellfish farmer.
Voice: How did you become chancellor? How did you get to this position?
Pugh: Well, my background is actually in social work. My field was mental health, which started when I was in the military. I worked in mental health clinics in the Air Force. With that experience, I became a consultant for Mc Laughlin Youth Center when I came to Alaska in 1970. After my military career, I went to work in juvenile corrections in the Department of Health and Social Services. I spent the next 14 years with the state department in various roles and later became Director of Family and Youth Services, Deputy Commissioner and finally Commissioner of DH&SS from 1983 to1985.
In 1986, the former chancellor at UAS, Marshall Lind, wanted me to come work for him as a special assistant, mostly working with the budget. There was a huge budget cut in 1986 and at the time, workers called it the “time in the desert.” I gave a report to the chancellor about how to cut 10 percent of the funding— a cut of over a million dollars. Eventually, a deanship opened in the fall, and I became the dean of arts and sciences and education and then became dean of faculty and ultimately chancellor 13 years ago.
Voice: Wow, that is quite a history. When you were a kid, is that what you wanted to do? I’m guessing being a chancellor wasn’t on the radar.
Pugh: Actually, both of my parents were social workers and that really influenced me. I knew I wanted to be a social worker, but I didn’t know about the passion I felt for teaching. For eight years, I was an adjunct at Anchorage Community College. Teaching in my field was something I did as a way to give back, and I have to admit, when Marshall Lind asked me to come to UAS, it made sense. I realized early on that the way most individuals will improve their lives is through education. UAS felt like a really good match for me after I had spent years doing counseling and teaching. I already had the connection with the university, so I felt comfortable transitioning.
John Pugh—The Servant Leader
Voice: Can you tell me about your management philosophy? You are very involved. Is that part of your management philosophy? Is it intentional?
Pugh: Yes, involvement or engagement matches my overall philosophy of leadership. I’ve always believed in order to be a good leader you have to be a servant leader. When I started reading about that kind of leadership 10 years ago, I realized in order to be a good leader I had to be a good follower or participant.
Participating is a way of modeling what it’s like to be a good citizen of a village where we are trying to help students come out of high school and make a transition into college and be successful. You can’t do that without getting down into the community and engaging yourself, all the while listening and receiving feedback
To be a leader, you first must serve. Nothing is too routine for me in that sense: For example, I go to student orientation, to library open houses, to picnics, I have participated in the Polar Bear Plunge and the annual 4th of July parade. I really try to be involved. Sometimes it’s tough because I have community obligations as well, and some weeks I’m out every night. But, that’s just how I lead.
Voice: Can you talk to me about your campus? Can you tell me about the $500 dollars you’re offering to students to take 15 credits or more? Was it your idea? How is it going?
Pugh: The original idea for the incentive came from student services and Saichi Oba as part of the developing ‘Stay on Track’ campaign. Everyone was trying to think of incentives to keep people on track, including the president. I kept saying the only incentive is to actually give students a real cash incentive—pay for one of their courses that will bring them up to 15 credit hours or more. I decided to launch the incentive at UAS. We increased 36 student schedules to 15 credit hours and rewarded those already taking 15 credits. UAS is small enough that as a campus there are opportunities for incentives like this.
Voice: Speaking of students, do you recruit a certain kind of student at UAS? You provide different opportunities—more intimate campus culture, greater opportunity for students to get involved—how do you recruit?
Pugh: When I became chancellor, one of the things I thought is that we weren’t using our location to our advantage. At UAS, students and faculty can kayak, mountain climb, ice climb, be in the marine biology program, be on boats in the water studying marine mammals, or can be an environmental student studying glaciers and the landscape of the national parks. A campaign started attracting students to those program areas. We’ve had success, keeping in mind science programs are not easy—not that any programs are. Most of the students we attract have been successful. Am I proud of those numbers? Yes.
I’ve also been working at strengthening our outreach to Alaska Native students. Many of the students coming from small rural high schools could do well at UAS and not get lost. UAS is a great match for them and we seek federal grants to help with student success. Our success numbers have tripled in terms of graduation rates for Alaska Native students in recent years. When I became chancellor that graduation rate was two to three percent. Can we do more? Absolutely.
The Jewel of the System
Voice: The President was recently quoted in an article saying that UAS is the jewel of the campuses. Could you tell me your interpretation of this?
Pugh: I remember the first time President Gamble came to the Juneau campus back when we were both finalists for the UA president position. Once he became president he came to Juneau again. He had travelled to many air force bases when he was a general and said that he could tell by the feel of the campus that people were in sync with the mission of the school—working together, all as cogs of a bigger wheel. The President said he believed in hands-on education and was sure that anyone interested in learning about marine biology would end up here—a glacier is right out the back door, the water is one step out the front where students can jump on the boat from our dock. He described it as a jewel because of the beauty of the campus and for the ability students have to be actively engaged in learning.
Voice: UAS is unique because you can’t drive to any of your campuses. There is no connectivity. How do you deal with that?
Pugh: Well, that’s an interesting question. Isolation can be, for both faculty and students, a real challenge.
I always tell recruiters, either faculty or staff, to consider three things. First, there has to be a program students are committed to. The student can’t just be coming in here generically because they won’t stay. Obviously, you can’t keep all the students. Some change their mind; I mean, I changed my mind four times as an undergrad. I went to four universities, but I did graduate with 160 credit hours. Our goal should be to match students with a program that we have.
Those at UAS need to be independent students or faculty, too. They most likely can’t afford to get back home three times a semester. Realistically, there are only a few opportunities to travel, during winter break and maybe summer, because it’s expensive. You have to find students and employees who have that kind of drive.
The third thing I tell people is to be realistic about the weather. We have some beautiful weather and we have some stinky, rainy weather that can be horrible. Students need to know that there may be five days of rain, but the one day it clears up will be worth it. If someone doesn’t like the rain or the dark, UAS probably isn’t a good fit, but if students engage with the environment here, they don’t leave. The environment is wonderful and a key element to our success in battling the isolation.
Forty years ago we were isolated, I would say. Live television was unheard of. The first football game that was broadcast live was a Dallas Cowboys game and the oil companies funded that. It’s different now though. We are all connected to various networks through the Internet.
The Three Amigos: UAA, UAF, UAS
Voice: Can you tell me about your relationship with the other chancellors?
Pugh: Well, it’s excellent. We call ourselves the three amigos. We talk to one another at least every other week on the phone to touch base in case one of us has something going on the others need to know about. It’s a very good relationship and it helps us to continue to look for ways to work together.
Voice: How do you work with the president? You talked about how you were vying for the position of president. Does it make it harder for you to have a relationship with the president?
Pugh: I actually think it makes it easier. Obviously when it first happened, I was disappointed; however, I was committed to this campus and to the system regardless.
The president is very good about listening. That’s what’s important. He has a sense of the three main campuses. Each one has an individual character and they have different individual missions to serve the greater UA System. He knows what each campus can contribute to the whole system. That’s what a good leader does: you listen to, think about and are open to sharing ideas.
I feel good about working with the president and how he works. He is very deliberative. He thinks a lot and thinks concepts through.
Voice: All right, time for the last question and maybe the hardest. You’re going to have to brag on yourself a little bit. What is your biggest success as chancellor?
Pugh: Hmmm, as chancellor?
Voice: Yes, but you can take the question any way that you want to.
Pugh: As dean, I worked with the education faculty to create our highly successful Master of Arts in Teaching Program. I also worked with faculty to create the Marine Biology & Environmental Science degree programs. All of these programs have helped UAS grow and be recognized.
As chancellor, I would say that one of the things that I think I’ve done the best is trying to finish out the core campus here so that residential students will feel like they’re having the full undergraduate residential experience. I was able to get the recreation center facility built. We finished classrooms and expanded buildings.
We totally remodeled all three floors of the old Anderson building. I think we have an excellent master plan in place since we have spent 2012 updating the UAS Master Plan to take us through the long-term future. I also think keeping us on a steady budget, together with the president, has helped us avoid massive budget cuts. We have had a steady operating budget and continue to grow and improve the campus facilities and core campus.