Voice

Q and A Conversation with Kit Duke: Gryffindor

Headshot of Jo Michaelski, chair of the UA Foundation.

As a part of the Q and A series with university officials, each person will be asked to take a "sorting hat" personality test for fun and good measure. See below for results.

Interview conducted and written by Rachel Voris

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live every day as if it’s your last, look no further. Kit Duke, someone who is straightforward, honest and innovative in thinking, does this. What started young as a dream of being an architect evolved into a lifetime of accomplishments. Her career has placed her in pivotal moments for Alaska’s statehood history, and now, she is using all of that knowledge and information to further the mission of the University of Alaska.

Kit Duke looks over paperwork with a co-worker. Duke oversees Facilities and Land Management at the UA. Photo by Chas St. George.

The Early Years: Pioneering In Alaska and Architecture

Tell me about your early years in Alaska. I’ve heard that your family has a homestead.

My husband’s family proved up on a homesite and homestead in the Anchorage area back in the 1940s. Rhon and I met at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and got married in college. He always made it clear that he was going back to Alaska, and if we were going to get married, I had to be prepared to do that. I was a bit of an adventurous person, and thought, hey I will try this.

When we arrived in Alaska in the spring of 1970. None of his family lived here anymore, but they did own one of the original homestead properties on what is now Knik-Goose Bay Road out by Wasilla. In those days when you drove from the Lower 48 to Alaska through Canada, you had to have $300 in your possession to cross the Canadian border. We had $300 and not a penny more. By the time we crossed into Alaska we had about $100 left. Our options were to rent an apartment for a month or buy a tent and go live on the homestead property, which is what we did. The original cabin was long gone, so we had to rebuild the access road and construct our own cabin. We lived there without water and electricity—sounds a lot like Fairbanks dry cabins doesn’t it? We lived in a dry cabin for a few years, but when we had our first child we decided we had to have water.

How many years did you do that?

I did it for four years. My husband did it longer. My husband and I are actually divorced and remarried. We were both the oldest siblings of four children in each of our families. We adopted one of my sisters and had two of his brothers living with us, and at one point, my brother lived with us and so did a couple of other friends. It just became overwhelming. One day I went to work and didn’t go back home. It took about four years for both of us to realize that we should get back together, which we did, and we had two more children. Eventually we moved to Anchorage but I’ve also lived in Juneau. The last 20 years of our life have been here in Anchorage. It’s easier to have our respective jobs here. Rhon was a contractor and now does IT consulting, while I’ve always been in the design and construction industry.

How did you get into the construction industry?

I knew in the seventh grade that I wanted to be an architect; I just had a limited understanding of what that meant. At the time I thought it was someone who built houses, and I just knew I could design a better “machine for living” than most of the contractors were building at the time. I used to go and wander through construction sites, and I just loved experiencing the space. I knew I would love to create spaces.

In high school I made up my mind to take drafting classes instead of home economics, which was mandatory for women. I struggled to get into an architectural degree program because most seemed to have informal policies not to admit women, thinking that giving slots to women in high demand areas would ultimately be a waste of teaching resources. With perseverance I was accepted into the University of Kentucky. One woman graduated before me; I was the second.

While you were in the program did you experience prejudice?

I would say they tried their best to weed me out, but I was pretty determined. The more they tried, the more determined I became to make it.

What was your first position out of college?

Well, I’ve been working since I was 16. I worked during summers while in high school and in college. Generally, the idea was to not have any debt when I got out of school. I was able to achieve that. It rarely occurred to people to borrow money to go to college. You either received grants and scholarships or worked your way through. My parents didn’t contribute to my college education, and I just worked. I was paid 90 cents an hour; tuition was only $125 a semester for unlimited credits. It balanced out.  

During the summers I worked for architects because I wanted to get practical experience in the field. The University of Kentucky was focused on training architects to be ready to go into practice upon graduation, as opposed to a more theoretical-based education. You could make better money working for an architect compared to a lot of other positions available to students. During the summer I saved up for the   tuition, and during the school year I was able to make enough to put a roof over my head. I didn’t have a lot of expenses. I didn’t buy things, have a car or have time for entertainment activities. The approach to attending college seems to me to be different way of thinking, and a different experience, than it is now.

What skills were you gaining through this experience that you still use now?

I would say tenacity. I am always looking at how to do things better, how to make the process more efficient, how to ensure that people could make a difference with the work completed and could make a profit from a project. There were things I learned in college that I no longer use, like sitting and working at a drafting board for 10 hours a day. After I came to Alaska and got my first “real job” working as an architect, I started learning how to organize a project for completion. If an owner requests to have a school built in 18 months, you have to put a lot of thought into all the parts and pieces to make that happen. While I was employed in the private sector working to achieve my registration, I was already volunteering time with a non-profit agency that advocated for landlord/tenant laws and sought funds for projects to construct low-income housing. In addition, I was a charter member of the local chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute – an organization that brought owners, designers, contractors and material suppliers together to find solutions for problems common to all in the industry. I believed this organization, rather than those that focused only on one sector, had the most potential to improve our industry.

Throughout her career, Duke has worked at the university twice. Initially, her position was as the design project manager when Anchorage Community College was transitioning to a four-year degree campus, around 1973, and then again as Facilities and Land Management vice president. Photo by Chas St. George.

There and Back Again—A Work History

How did you transition from the private sector to come and work for the university? 

Initially, I went to work for the University of Alaska as the design project manager when Anchorage Community College was transitioning to a four-year degree campus, around 1973. I worked on the first three buildings to implement the UAA “spine” master plan concept. Those projects that produced the Wells Fargo Sports Center, the Student Center and Health Occupations Building.   Then, I followed my boss when he went to work for the Alaska Department of Public Works.

What made you want to leave and work for the Department of Public Works?

The reason for leaving was to develop and implement a process to ensure the investment of state capital dollars would achieve the best long-term results for our state, which had very little infrastructure to support economic development. At the time, we were close to getting the oil money flowing in and people were already thinking about how to build infrastructure that the state needed. It was an exciting time to work for the state because you had an opportunity to be involved in making key decisions for capital investments.

I began my state job working with others in Governor Hammond’s cabinet to build consensus for new legislation to create a planning process that would guide state investment of capital funds. In the mid 1970s, the Molly Hootch case was decided in favor of building high schools in every community that had more than 100 people. I had the opportunity to administer that grant program traveling to a lot of villages and working with the local people. I also worked with staff in the department of education to ensure the communities were receiving the best quality product possible under the conditions.

I had wonderful opportunities to see a lot of the state, a very expensive thing to do if you’re paying for it yourself, and to be involved in historic moments for Alaska. I was in Juneau when Hammond pushed for and got the Permanent Fund created. I was loaned out to the Alaska Senate to perform the duties of Interim Director of the Capital Site Planning Commission, giving me the opportunity to gain experience in the legislative branch—Arliss Sturglewski was my boss! Once I returned to the executive branch. I was assigned to help create the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities by combining the original Departments of Public Works and Highways. I was then appointed statewide planning director for DOTPF, serving until the end of the Hammond administration. At that point in my career, I was subject to being dismissed at the change of an administration.

After returning to private practice for a while, I took a job with the court system in the early 1980s helping to obtain funding for a new trial court facility in Anchorage. Once that project was finished, I   was offered the opportunity to return to DOTPF as   Central Region Director. After another change in administration, I was invited to return to the court system and stayed there about 12 years until I took the Chief Facilities Officer job with the university. While at the court system the second time, we built the Fairbanks courthouse and several smaller ones in rural communities. The new facility in Fairbanks is really my pride and joy because it’s a great addition to the community, and helped to begin a revitalization and urban renewal process for the east end of downtown.

You’ve had an amazing career.

I try to live every day to it’s full potential.

What’s something you have always wanted to do but haven’t yet?

I would like to fully complete and occupy our cabin near Big Lake. It seems like a never-ending project that we don’t have enough time to ever get completed. It would also be fun to visit communities I haven’t visited yet in Alaska. I don’t really have a big bucket list, as people say these days. I’ve done so many things in my life that if I died tomorrow I think I would have no regrets, except that I do want to see my grandchildren grow up. We have three children and as of now, four grandchildren, but I think more may be on the way.  

What are some of your personal hobbies?

I like to garden, listen to bluegrass music and read books. I like to wander in the woods to pick berries and take “art photos” of nature. I like to entertain, and we enjoy the intimacy and closeness of relationship you can develop with smaller groups. We have a large extended family in Alaska, and so we do host dinners for as many as 25, but I really do most enjoy keeping close connection with our children and their families and with friends. When I’m able to retire I want to take up watercolor painting again.

Construction map of UAA projects/
Among Duke's many responsibilities, she is oversight for facilities projects across campuses. Pictured is a graphic of projects completed this summer just at UAA. Click the image to download the pdf with complete information.

Facilities and Land Management: The Double Edged Sword

What are you responsible for within your position?

There are two parts to my job: facilities investment and land management. I am working to integrate these two responsibilities because they impact one another.

For the land management area, my responsibility is to improve the revenue earned from the land and other property that we own. If you look at the trend of revenue over the last 20 or 30 years, we began a downward slide soon after the “fiscal crisis”. Last fiscal year the earnings were the lowest   in the last 16 years. I want to turn that around by finding ways to make money from the resources associated with our land. This isn’t as simple as it sounds because we don’t understand a lot about the attributes of the land that we have, and what we do understand we aren’t totally in control over. I’m trying to open up doors to oil and gas extraction, and to timber harvesting again. We have land with both surface—timber that can be sustainably harvested and subsurface resources like oil and gas. We are working with other land management entities to find the best way to enter contracts.

UA’s earnings from our land go directly into the land trust fund. The land trust fund provides both a permanent principle and an earnings account that funds scholarships for students, research related to natural resource management and conservation inflation-proofing. The fund creates a greater good for many people.

We have a mandate to make money from the land granted to the university. We are working to inform the public that development of our lands will create jobs and generate dollars allowing students to pursue higher education. As long as the land is managed responsibly, creating higher revenues is a beneficial thing to be doing.

While in this position, I also want to work with key groups, such as the legislature, to establish a sustainable funding stream for effective management and operation of our university facilities. This would allow UA to establish a dependable and predictable fund source for maintaining facilities and extending their life. This is an issue President Gamble has been working on since early in his presidency.

This plan sets forth the funding strategy and requirements for preserving and achieving full utilization of the buildings, assets and infrastructure for the University system. Click the image to download as a PDF.

What do you have to do to create that funding stream?

With Board of Regents’ support, we keep the governor’s staff and the legislature informed about the need for reliable capital and operating funding. Presently, we have many members of the legislature agreeing that this as an important issue. The university infrastructure represents   over a $3 billion investment on our 16 campuses. Unfortunately there is also an accumulation of $750 million worth of maintenance backlog, which needs to be performed if we are going to extend the life of these facilities. Maintenance backlogs and deferred maintenance are a significant funding need.

This year the idea for a university building fund will be discussed with the legislature. It will be modeled after the smaller but successful Alaska Public Building Fund. The intent is to cover new buildings and buildings that have maintenance backlog completed. When new buildings come online, sufficient funds for annual operation and for capital reinvestment will be deposited into the fund and a maintenance backlog will not be created. Instead, maintenance will be kept up as needed using the building fund.

Existing, older buildings will eventually be eligible to receive money from this fund. Eligible buildings will include those that have been upgraded, updated, and had their life extended. Likewise, there will likely be some buildings that will not be covered by the building fund because a better outcome is for them to be torn down and not receive further investment once the building’s worth does not equal the amount of money it would cost to maintain it.

PDF of a planning process for facilities.
This graphic represents the program resource planning process at the UA, which the Board of Regents adopted in the past two years. The building process begins in the academic world with a discussion about what programs will be delivered and where, then facilities needed for the programs are examined. Click on the image to view larger.

Can you tell me how you’re incorporating SDI into your long-range plans for the university?

I think some of the themes in SDI directly relate to facilities and land management. One is student achievement and attainment, from the standpoint that we have to provide the infrastructure so education can be delivered. If people don’t have appropriate facilities, including those for e-learning, it impedes our ability to get people successfully through their programs.

Concerning the theme about research and development to build and sustain Alaska’s economic growth, facilities and land management is also working towards this. While we aren’t doing scientific research, we are trying to provide revenues to support certain research, and we are seeking to have land uses that can bring jobs to a local economy. We also are building productive partnerships with Alaska’s public and private entities, another SDI theme and focus, by reaching out to cooperate with other successful land managers and industry groups. The university, as a whole, is developing partnerships to ensure we have the needed campus infrastructure to support our education mission. This may not be the way everyone sees these themes defined, but in the realm of facilities and land management, we are doing our best to apply SDI themes to our work.

What do you consider to be one of your biggest accomplishments since you’ve held this position?

I think building relationships and maintaining them has been one of my biggest accomplishments. Achieving effective relationships involves building trust, acting with integrity, being consistent and transparent. Making relationships a high priority is one of the most important things I’ve done since I got here. Previously, the relationship between the board and the facilities units was not effective. The board now has more confidence in our capital planning and facilities development and operation in part because we have put some processes in place that assure the board we are being fiscally prudent. What I hope will be my significant contribution to the university, is to achieve a sustained funding strategy, part of which may be creation of the university building fund.

If I were to follow you around for a day, what would I see you doing?

Well, in keeping with my goals to build and maintain an effective consistent capital planning and budgeting narrative, you would likely see me in meetings or on the phone framing issues, building consensus and helping participants make decisions beneficial to our institution. I spend time encouraging people because spreading vision is an important part of my job. I spend a lot of time talking to people throughout the organization making sure they’re informed and understand what we’re trying to do. I talk to the facilities people at each MAU about their projects and endeavor to support them in their efforts to achieve the best end result with their projects completed on time and within budget. Like everyone I respond to email, and I compose documents needed to communicate our policy positions.

All facilities projects must have authorization from the board to request funding and as they go through different phases of project development. It’s my job to provide staff support to the Board’s Facilities and Land Management Committee and to work with staff to build the board-authorized capital budget request and the 10 year capital plan, which projects future capital needs in keeping the board-adopted campus master plans.

How do you encourage each campus to work together as one unit and one university?

We have a UA facilities council that provides an avenue for me and the facilities directors to meet and talk about common issues, explore solutions to problems and find common ways of doing business. I also use strategic opportunities to bring people together for the purpose of building trust and cooperation.

What do you think is very important for staff to know, either about facilities and land management or the university?

Every staff member plays an important role in achieving the mission in higher education. Whether you’re working in finance, human resources, public affairs or in facilities and land management, it is very important that you be excited about what you’re doing and understand how your job fits into the bigger picture. Any thing that can be done to help foster that is important. I’m a person who always tries to tell myself the truth, so I encourage everyone to consider this: if you are less than satisfied with your job ask yourself, do I understand how important I am to the institution? If I don’t, how can I gain that understanding? What is it that would make me excited about coming to work every day if I’m not, how do I need to change my circumstances?

If we think about the university as a machine for living, teaching, and learning, it’s very important we figure out what cog we are in that machine. What I’m doing is looking for that good fit for the people that report to me and others I come in contact with, so that we are all doing our part the best we can.

Conclusion

Kit Duke is a pure Gryffindor. It is the place for the brave at heart with daring nerve, courage, and chivalry. She goes where others have not. She doesn’t settle and has achieved her childhood dream; something many of us can’t say is true. She is a truthful leader who will help keep the University of Alaska intact for many years to come.

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