Q and A Conversation with Regent Patricia Jacobson: Hufflepuff House

Regent Pat Jacobson and her niece Bess.
Regent Jacobson stands with her niece, Bess, who is a freshman at UAF this fall.

In part one of a new 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

As we prepare for the interview, Board of Regents Chair Patricia Jacobson warns me that her niece may be coming down the stairs of her home to say goodbye. Her niece, an incoming high school junior, has stayed the night and helped manage the garden and take care of house chores.

Somehow, Jacobson manages to find time for the garden and her two nieces in a schedule that would make most people’s heads spin. Her schedule is jam packed with meetings, campus tours, volunteer appointments and travel from Kodiak to the rest of the state. Jacobson, like the other ten unpaid regents, serves her position with absolute full commitment.

But, she loves it. And what drives her? You and I. The public. The students. Together, we somehow give her enough gratification in her work that she continues to devote her entire self to her position as board chair. �

Jacobson has prepared talking points for our interview though it wasn’t required. She is thorough, honest and incredibly humble about her position. She is endearing like a warm, historic quilt.

From Teacher to Board Chair

Jacobson taught a variety of elementary grades and subjects for 26 years before becoming chair of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.

Voice: What area did you teach? Did you teach the same subject all those years?

PJ: No I started in third grade, went to fourth, then to second. Although I was one who loved to stay in the same position, nevertheless, after four or five years I would suggest to the principal that I move. I’m of the philosophy that it is good for a teacher to get out of their comfort area and branch out and experience all sorts of ages. The bulk of my career was with gifted kids, which were mostly third through fifth graders with the occasional second grader. In rare cases there would be a first grader. I taught elementary gifted classes for 11 years.

Voice: Gifted kids can be challenging. Did you find it more difficult than teaching in a regular education classroom?

PJ: It was challenging, in a good way. We didn’t have a set curriculum. Sometimes we used NASA material or robotics from MIT about which I read a lot. Often times the girls didn’t develop any interest in engineering because they didn’t spend any time building with plastic bricks or blocks in their youth. I would go home every night saying, ‘they pay me to do this!’

Voice: How did you go from a retired teacher to being the chair of the University Board of Regents?

PJ: Actually I didn’t intend to retire. There was a school district buy out, and I waited the full six weeks before the window closed before I decided to accept the district-wide offer. I really didn’t want to go. Teaching the gifted was such a joy, but I decided that I should take it. Other folks said it was a deal one shouldn’t pass up. I was only 48. The village principal knew me, and he hired me back as an education technology person for the Kodiak Island villages. I flew to all the villages and helped with multimedia and other technological issues. After two years in that position, I ran for the school board. That was a mistake.

Voice: How so?

PJ: I had told other teachers during my campaign that I would have to be a representative of more than teachers and would need a more global perspective. I said, ‘sometimes I may make decisions you won’t be pleased with.’ I was on the school board for three years and decided not to run again.

Several years later, I decided to apply to the State Board of Commissions with the Office of the Governor (the office that coordinates applicants for the Board of Regents and other positions click here for more information). It had never really occurred to me before that to apply.

I didn’t even have a resume, having taught in Kodiak all those years. A friend and I developed my resume together and it happened. I got a call from the Board of Commissions Office saying they had emailed me to see if I was still interested. The email had gone into the junk mail. It was very lucky for me that they even followed up!

Voice:How did you end up with the university BOR?

PJ: I prioritized each application and the Board of Regents was my top priority. I got a call, and they asked a few questions. I didn’t hear back initially, but then received another phone call and I answered more questions. Then I was selected. Sometimes an individual is contacted by the governor’s office or by the Board of Commissions director, and then sometimes people like me apply.

The Board of Regents and Key Operations

The Board of Regents is an 11-member board, appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Alaska Legislature. The Board is responsible for the governance of the university as provided by the Constitution of the State of Alaska and in accordance with law, shall formulate policy and appoint the president of the university. (As stated in Board of Regents’ Bylaws 01 and 03)

Jacobson sits as chair at a Board of Regents meeting in June.
Jacobson sits as chair at a Board of Regents meeting in June.

Voice:Why do you think they appointed you as chair?

PJ: (pauses to think) I don’t know.

Voice:(laughing) I know it is hard to speak highly of ourselves sometimes. I think it was a very good decision on their part.

Are you enjoying this position? Is it more than you’ve expected?

PJ: I really do enjoy it. I knew I would, but I had no clue as to the amount of time that would be involved. It can involve very little time or tons, depending on how much time one wants to devote to it. I didn’t realize as to just how much I would enjoy it. It comes down to one word—gratification. It’s very gratifying to serve the public. Whether it’s commencements at Nome or Anchorage, hearing about how the university has positively changed lives is awesome and very humbling.

I read a great quote in the Association of Governing Board’s Trustee Magazine. It said “regents and the governing board hold one of the most serious and consequential exercises in volunteering leadership in our society,” and I believe that is true. It is awesome and almost terrifying because it is a huge responsibility.

Voice: There has been so much in the media recently about communication channels and other boards and presidents not being informed, especially in light of the governing board activities of Penn State and the University of Virginia. How would the University of Alaska cope in such situations?

PJ: I believe the UA system is right up there, among top university systems based on what I’ve heard at national conferences. We receive regular reports about risk factors and contingency plans and every other kind of plan imaginable.

Though, you can’t prepare for everything. I try to do that in my own life. I try to anticipate every eventuality, but that’s impossible, of course. �

I have every confidence in our administration and that, in a crisis situation, they will be thorough and act swiftly in gathering the information and dealing with it while always keeping in focus the important and need for safety and protection of others. �

Voice: So, communication seems key. How does the board operate and communicate with the president? Can you explain this relationship?

PJ: Any regent is free at anytime to contact the president about specific things. They don’t have to go through the chair or anyone else. The president is very good about keeping us informed as to what’s going on. It’s my impression that this president is much more engaged than many others nationally.

Voice: What role does the board play in managing the university?

PJ: I believe firmly in the importance of regent oversight and responsibility. I read absolutely everything provided to me. I always try to stay mindful about the importance maintaining trust and respect for the institution and its administration, faculty and staff, current and past.

By saying trust, I’m not implying blind trust, but our contemporaries and predecessors, whether they are regents, administrators, faculty, students, all deserve basic trust regarding decisions being made.

Voice:Along with trust, what are other leadership qualities you deem important?

PJ: I’ve always felt it was very important to incorporate respect in the interactions with others. As far as what we are doing with the board, we are all adults, equals, humans and we have different backgrounds and experiences. We all have different roles and different opinions, which is healthy. But I think the focus for all of us is to be allies in helping provide the best higher education and workforce development for students as possible, keeping costs as low as feasible, while maintaining and improving the quality of the university product, which is education and research.

Voice:When speaking about the quality of education, how does each regent work to consider the university as a whole in their decisions? Are regents regionalized?

PJ: There was an era when regents had their own factions. Each regent would cater to one area of the state because they were from that area. That changed some time ago with the regent philosophy. When I first got on the board people from Kodiak said to me, “oh good, you’ll be pushing for Kodiak,” and I said “yes, along with every other place in the state.”

I really believe that our regents are all fair-minded and look at things with a statewide perspective. I’m really proud of the whole board. I know they have projects that they would like to see developed, but everyone is very good about effectively managing and maintaining the statewide perspective. I might not always have been that way, but it is now.

Voice: How does a student regent work with the board, and is it common for a university to have a student regent?

PJ: A student regent, I believe, is fairly common nationally. What I believe is less common is the fact that ours is a fully voting/participating member. The position is a two-year term verses the eight-year term for the rest of the regents.

The Front Lines of Communication

As a regent, Jacobson finds communication is one of the most important aspects of her position. There is a stream of communication channels operating within the university, which always leads back to the Board of Regents.

Voice:How does the board work with the university? Is it an open exchange?

PJ: Of course communication is the key to about anything. I try to become as educated as I possibly can about the workings of the institution so that I can communicate better. One way to do that is by plugging in extra tours at the various facilities. There is so much to learn about the university system. People have told me it’s about a two-year learning curve. It’s an eight-year term, and the longer I’m on the board I realize it’s a nine-year learning curve.

My point is that there is so much we will never know, but we do the best we can. I think it is very important before we do anything that we go through the proper channels. It’s good to have a protocol in place so that everyone knows where they stand, but also, the executive officers know the most expeditious routes to get there, when making appointments for tours or other visits or when having major goals. They are trained in those areas.

Voice: So, what could people or regents do to communicate the right ways, but not overburden the administration?

PJ: One way for regents to communicate well is to go through the full board. It’s beneficial for everyone so that information can be shared with all regents. Regents can request items for future agenda topics to try to reach as many people as possible to share that information with.

I’m not saying I always think that far ahead, but it is a great thing to do. Also when focusing on communication, we try to stay as closely to schedule as possible when it comes to public testimony. We listen when people talk. I take copious notes and so does the executive officer… I think public testimony is not only very important, but it is very enlightening. Generally, though not always, it is very positive and reinforcing. It’s kind of similar to graduations and commencements. It’s very gratifying and humbling to hear about people’s trials and tribulations in accomplishing their educational goals. They endure a lot, and it is a testimony to them and their support system.

Sometimes an individual will say, ‘who would have thought in a state like Alaska that is so sparse and spread out, that this individual could accomplish these things?’ The opportunities provided by this university are phenomenal.

Jacobson with two outgoing governance leaders.
Jacobson stands with outgoing governance leaders Nicholas Pennington and Daniel Monteith.

Voice:In terms of the agenda for the board meetings, are there any big items coming up with governance groups?

PJ: The administration is working as hard as they can on health care topics, and so are the appointed committees. The various governance groups are also continually addressing their compensation. That’s always going to be on the front burner. So is tuition.

Voice:Do the heads of the governance groups report at every BOR meeting?

PJ: They do. At all of our regularly scheduled meetings.

Voice:Governance obviously brings topics for discussion to you. Does the board give information to the governance groups to think about or discuss as well?

PJ: It is a two way street. We communicate through our administration. An example of this is health care. A lot of rumors were flying around a while back and so the need was present to put the facts, as known, out there, which happened in the form of a website. �

One of the key elements to the successful university is the faculty and staff. We need to know what’s going on with them and what’s good or bad in their opinion. They are right there at the meeting, on the agenda, which is a testament to the importance and respect we have for that essential element of the whole university system.

SDI and University Enhancements

The Strategic Direction Initiative (SDI) is an organized change working to identify problems in the university and create resolutions that could return value to the university and state.

Jacobson on a tour of the Allied Health Building in Anchorage.
Jacobson on a tour of the Allied Health Building in Anchorage.

Voice: What are your thoughts on SDI and the impact it will have on the university?

PJ: There are a number of points about SDI that will enhance and improve the university. There were 80 listening sessions around the state, each an hour long, and that information is being categorized. There has been input from the students, faculty, administration and all of the key stakeholders. SDI will be taken very seriously, and there will be advancements for the university as a result.

Voice: What will be the role of regents and SDI?

PJ: Everyone is so excited about SDI. The regents are not only excited knowing that SDI is very important, but also it has taken about a year to collect and analyze the information and we are chomping at the bit to see the results (which will be viewed at the September board meeting). The information gathered went through a very thorough vetting.

Regents want to be involved in what role SDI will play with the university. Regents will have sufficient input, especially through the planning and development committee. We need to let those in charge of compiling the information do their work, just like we need to let the planning and development committee do its work. I firmly believe there are reasons to have protocol, like this committee. We will have changes, positive changes, and along the way there will be ample input from regents—just like everybody else. �

Voice: Does SDI separate the University of Alaska from other similar institutions?

When I’ve gone to the national conferences and talked to regents from other universities, it is never ceases to amaze me in a very positive way about how far along the University of Alaska is. In the big round tables at the conference, people will talk about some national initiatives that are coming up, and it’s usually something we are working on or that we’ve already been doing for a few years. It boggles my mind. How in the world can that be, in remote Alaska where people still live in igloos, as many folks down below believe—how can we be doing all of this? Part of what I learn from comparisons at the national conferences is it that the university is doing pretty doggone well. I believe a lot is going to come out of SDI, and we will grow as a result.

In Conclusion

Jacobson’s deep commitment to the university has spread to her family. She drove her niece Bess to UAF for her freshman year of college at the end August. Jacobson helped Bess get acquainted with her new settings and even took her to a spa day at Chena Hot Springs before her new college career began.

Jacobson is thrilled about her niece’s choice to be a part of the university. And even though Jacobson believes she is just a small cog in the long history that is the University of Alaska, she couldn’t be more excited about Bess’s choice and doing her part to help further the institution. �

A Cinematic Snapshot of Regent Jacobson

At the request of the Statewide Voice, Jacobson agreed to take the Harry Potter “Sorting Hat Quiz” which is a personality quiz that mirrors the Myers-Briggs test. Jacobson admitted that she has only seen a few of the movies with her nieces over the years, but she did feel the results were accurate. Jacobson’s results revealed that she belongs to the “Hufflepuff” house. The Hufflepuff students are known for their loyalty (though not blind loyalty Jacobson pointed out), dedication, hard work, fair play (she insists on this, especially that adults interact kindly with each other), and patience. The Statewide Voice had predicted she would belong in the Hufflepuff house.
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