Q and A Conversation with President Gamble: Hufflepuff

President Gamble sits with his dog after bird hunting--one of his favorite hobbies.
President Gamble sits with his dog after bird hunting--one of his favorite hobbies.

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

When most people think of a bucket list, they think of exotic travels, skydiving, the Mona Lisa or even retirement. Not University of Alaska President Pat Gamble. His bucket list contains simple things, like reading books and enjoying jam sessions on his electric guitar. Instead of dreaming of adventure and far off goals, he has lived it.

Gamble works to blend his military and business knowledge with his education to navigate the university toward a new direction.

In a sit down, one-on-one interview, Gamble revealed these things and much more about the interworking behind the mind of a university president.

President Gamble: The Early Days

What was your most exciting moment as a fighter pilot? You flew almost 400 combat missions during Vietnam?

Gamble: I started out as a forward air controller. You have to remember now we’re talking about 1969, and aviation was far less advanced than it is now. The Vietnam War was actually like the Korean War—more basic than anything we have now. I stayed in a little Vietnamese fishing village with three or four other guys. I flew twice a day, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon, seven days a week. I would look for targets that would come across the Cambodian border near where I was stationed in the middle of a swamp. My job was to visually find the target and then call in air strikes. I would mark the targets on the ground with a smoke rocket for them to see and then strike. The plane was a little smaller than a Cesna 172. It was just me and my little airplane, looking for targets. The skills I developed were a lot like hunting skills; you really get to know every rock, tree and bush. Anything that’s different catches your attention—that’s the way it worked back in those days.

Did you start piloting early on?

Gamble: It was part of the Air Force aviation program. When I was a junior in college at Texas A&M I started taking the flying lessons that at that time were a part of ROTC.

Were there close calls for you in the war? Even though you weren’t doing the air strikes, I’m assuming there were some scary moments?

Gamble: Nothing is too scary when you’re 24 years old. You’re invincible. I would fly around by myself at 1,500 feet with no parachute. I had both windows open so I could hear gunfire. I was close to the people on the ground. When I supported them, I felt like I was part of their team. There were some strange things that happened, some of them not necessarily associated with fighting but with the flying, but I came home in one piece.

Gamble poses with his plane during his early days as a fighter pilot.
Gamble poses with his plane during his early days as a fighter pilot.

Everyone has trials and turmoil in life. Can you tell me about something hard you’ve been through, but you’ve learned from in your personal life?

Gamble: It was actually something that was so profound at the time it imprinted on me much of what I am today. It was the first job as a commander I had in the Air Force. I was put in charge of a squadron with about 28 airplanes, 650 people and a terrible reputation. It was just broken: flunked inspections, crashed planes, lost a pilot. They were just in so much trouble. It was like they were clog dancing through a minefield.   I was 36 years old at the time and had never been in charge.

After six months of constant struggle, I was hanging on by my fingernails. I went to my boss and told him that everything I had tried had not worked and that I needed to get really, really tough on this undisciplined squadron. I needed him to take the entire training mission load off of this squadron and give them to me to do a formal “get well” program for six weeks. I told him, ‘if I can’t fix these problems in six weeks doing it my way, then do with me what you have to do.’

For six weeks, I was Vlad the Impaler—no more Mr. Nice Guy. I was incredibly tough on the squadron and in the end had to fire several people. I asked that squadron to go above and beyond and just do the things I asked without questioning my authority. Most did so willingly.

We came roaring back, right on the first day after those six weeks.   We won awards and went to competitions. We won the most improved facilities award. It was all a matter of picking the right team and getting the people who were dysfunctional out of the way of those who wanted to do a good job.

Going through that process—where I was so close to getting fired—and then working so intensely with great, hard working people 24 hours a day for six weeks, I learned what was really going on and who was doing what. That experience was invaluable. It formed a lot of my impressions about leadership and management, which have stayed with me in every other organization that I belonged to. I had never had any real leadership experience up to that point. This was my first big test. It gave me the opportunity to see what I was made of. I never gave up, even though at times I really wanted to.

So let’s talk about the transition going from Air Force to the Alaska Railroad Corporation to the University of Alaska. You’re very accomplished. How did you end up in Alaska after all of you experiences?

Gamble: You know, one thing builds on another over the years when you develop a career. It starts with education and training, and then you’re put into a follower mode. You don’t start out leading; you learn how to be a good follower first. Then you go to school and learn about leadership and management and then you get your first job where you’re actually leading people. You deal with people having all kinds of moods and attitudes and as you complete one job, it builds your foundation for the next and the jobs often start getting bigger and bigger. Then you branch out from your primary job and you learn other trade skills, broadening and developing. Along the way your experiences all pack into your leadership kit bag so by the time you get a job where you’re the boss, you have acquired many tools—most associated with people skills. There is never a dull moment dealing with people. That building process just goes on and on and once you finally establish your style—your leadership and management style—it stays imprinted on you for most of your life. It doesn’t vary a lot.

You’ve done a lot in your life. Are there things on your bucket list you have yet to accomplish?

My bucket list is probably considered strange. I’ve got a lot of books that are in my library, and many not in my library, that I want to read. I would like to go back and brush up on mathematics, my degree. I’m so past what I learned back then in college. I would really like to go back and become more fluent in French again. I love to play the guitar, and I would like to get much better at that.

Acoustic, electric, classical?

Gamble: Electrical, I’m a rock, country and blues guy. I played in bands all through high school and college. I still plug in my guitar every weekend, turn up the amp and wail away playing along with my favorite songs. Blues and contemporary country western are the two I enjoy the most.

I’d like to do more fishing and bird hunting. I don’t have a big bug to travel because I’ve already travelled a lot. As a kid in an Air Force family, travel started young.   I would, however, love to go back to Vietnam and see it differently than how I saw it the last time. And finally, if I were smart enough to understand the math and physics of where we are in regard to high-energy physics and cosmology, I would love to study the subject much more. I casually read as much as I can get my hands on, but my math needs to get a whole lot better to keep up with it. I’d love to be a physics student again. 

The Role of the President

Gamble and his wife Aliese greet the staff at a statewide picnic last summer.
Gamble and his wife Aliese greet the staff at a statewide picnic last summer. Photo by Monique Musick.

What does your management style look like?

Gamble: People oriented. That doesn’t mean that people always get what they want, it means that I always pay attention to people, listen to people, place value on people and realize that building the team is so important to one’s leadership and management success. I can’t do it all myself. Other people can take an idea or a concept that I have and develop it much better than I can because they are the experts in their functional area. Pick your team. Hold them to high standards. Let them do what you hire them to do. That is my basic style.

Another characteristic is don’t pull the trigger too fast. Load the gun, aim the gun, think about it and count to 10. Make sure the target is really a target before you pull the trigger. You’ll always be sorry when you try to do things too fast without enough information. I learned that the hard way. Get plenty of information and don’t make decisions faster than you have too. That said, when it’s time to decide, do it firmly and move on.

You can’t be afraid to take risks because you think you’ll get in trouble. The organization demands that you step up and take risks in order to move ahead. If you stumble and have a good boss, they’ll always let you get away with an honest mistake or two.

Have you taken risks so far as president? Are you still at the “feeling” stage in your position?

Gamble: I’m not at the feeling stage. That was probably the first six months. When you move out of your direct line of expertise into something new—technically at least—it takes three to six months, in my experience, for someone to start contributing more than you’re detracting from the organization as a new person. At first people have to stop and slow down while you catch up and learn, but somewhere there is a cross over point where that all ends and you start contributing to the team as a leader more than you are slowing progress and taking away. My first six months were like that. I took stock of the place. Most of the people stuff wasn’t strange to me because I’ve always been working with people. But the fundamental culture of academia was new and different. Everything that surrounds and supports that new culture was quite familiar. People are always people, and the function of leadership is the same too. But leaders need to know when to be students too.

So I spent time trying to learn about our university culture. I found many educators and staff that I can learn from when I have questions. Dana Thomas (vice president of Academic Affairs) has been invaluable to me that way. I plop down in the chair across from his desk and say, ‘Dana, what the heck do I do about this?’ I find that kind of informal cultural learning invaluable.

To answer your question, the entire SDI initiative is a huge risk. To pivot the entire university system on its axis and point it in a different direction is a risk but one worth taking on.

The University of Alaska is putting military leaders into leadership positions within the university. Why do you think this is a trend here, instead of a leader with a traditional academic background?

Gamble: The primary function of a board is to hire and fire the CEO, the president. At the time of a president’s selection the board picks whom the board needs at the time. It doesn’t pick a military officer per se; it picks someone with the background and experience for what they think the university needs now and for about the next five to 10 years. Why did they see a need to continue this kind of former military leadership for one more cycle? I suspect the board was specifically looking for the right balance. It would not surprise me at all for the board next time to look for a uniquely qualified academician, when the times and conditions change, who would be perfect for the next presidency.

I’m glad it was me they selected, though. The challenges are tremendous, tough and exciting. I’m fired up about the prospects for being able to really accomplish something important here at UA through SDI. I’ll never loose sight of that objective or lose enthusiasm for it because I truly believe SDI is going to make a difference in our future.

Gamble presents to UAF students at convocation earlier this fall about SDI.
Gamble presents to students at a UA Scholars event. Photo by Monique Musick.

Shifting momentum: SDI

So, let’s talk about SDI. If you had to describe SDI in five words, what would they be?

Gamble: Five words. ‘How we do the mission’—with an emphasis on how. That as opposed to ‘what we do’ or ‘why we do it.’ How we do the mission—this is what SDI is all about changing. What goes on in the classroom and in the labs—that core mission area—remains the same.

The Board of Regents just met. How did it make you feel when the regents took time out of the meeting and spent a lot of time, about 45 minutes, talking about how they approve of SDI and the direction and launch of phase II?

Gamble: You know, we have a super board (Board of Regents). They supported us further than I ever expected. They really went out of their way to give us, the university, the support that SDI needed. I think that’s important for the whole university to see. Constitutionally, the board runs the university, and so to have them feel that strong—that what we are doing is worthwhile and we are on track with it—was the kind of support that I think the whole university need to be aware of. There is no free lunch here, though. I’m held accountable for the outcomes as president. I’m on a 24-hour contract that gets renewed every day. We aren’t close to planting an SDI victory flag or doing an SDI end zone touchdown dance… yet. The board is saying ‘so far, so good.’

Have you received, up to this point, this level of positive feedback? This was clearly the most defined comment that any of the board members had made about SDI that I’m aware of.

If you go back to how SDI got started, the board had a potpourri of different UA administrative and academic issues they were dealing with and so did the legislature. Parents and students were frustrated and giving advice. Rather than trying to address these issues one at a time and put Band-Aid fixes on them, we decided on a new strategy. We could draw in all of this disparate systemwide criticism we were receiving from so many different sources and see if we could find common themes, or evidence of dysfunction in what all they were telling us. Then we would trace those lines of evidence back and discover what constitutes the fundamental issue. This is the methodology for SDI. It was sort of a hide and watch process for the first SDI phase while we mainly just gathered information.

In September the board had apparently witnessed enough of the methodology and the results so far to give us thumbs up for this particular phase, and it was a strong thumbs up. It was a validation of all the work up to that point that the whole team had put into the process. There are so many key players making a difference, and if you took any of them out of the picture we wouldn’t be where we are.

SDI is so much about student success. Why is this your focus?

Gamble: In the simplest terms, it’s the main mission as the university. What else belongs at the top if not prioritizing student success? Our mission is what goes on inside the classroom. At UA there is teaching of a high quality, and so you want to maximize learning of a high quality. Students should be able to complete whatever objective they’ve come to us for. Our mission is to ensure that completion is accomplished effectively and with quality.

Students come to us and want something from us at the end of the day, and we need to give it to them with style. If we are making them jump through unnecessary administrative or bureaucratic hoops or raising the bar too high without justification, then we are defeating our own purpose.   Fortunately, our participatory process of shared governance lets us know what works best and what doesn’t in terms of overall student success. You go through faculty senates and staff and faculty alliances and learn what paths work. We are very carefully engaged in that balancing process to make sure we don’t force anything that is unwanted in the crusade for quality of education.

Let’s realize up front that SDI is not a project or a program in the conventional sense of the word. When we finish Phase III, which is selecting what are we going to do about the problems or issues and set into motion steps to effect continuous improvement or problem solving, once we agree that overall UA direction has changed sufficiently, SDI withers away. It doesn’t last forever. It doesn’t need a name anymore—it’s just us.

A lot of people ask me how we will know when we achieve results. I tell them we will develop a suite of metrics or measurements suitable to display change. When the needles on those metrics all start to trend in the same positive direction, maybe in a couple years, we will notice this difference and see that on a broad front something good is happening. Eventually, perhaps three to five years, there will be a new UA direction. The timetable isn’t fast. It’s somewhat unpredictable.   But when a substantial combination of major indicators trend the same positive way, we will know we have made the changes we were looking to make.

Gamble spends time answering questions from the staff during a statewide "Coffee with the President" earlier this month. Photo by Monique Musick.

Let’s talk about the tuition increase. The two percent increase is modest comparatively nationwide. How is our university comparing to others with tuition increases?

Gamble: States in the lower 48 have dropped support to many universities, and the universities have had to compensate by raising tuition—sometimes doing so two to three times in one year. You’re looking at 20 to 40 percent reductions in state support to those universities over the last two to three years. At UA, we have not yet had to face that. We aren’t under a crisis mode that acts as a forcing function of change. A good organization normally doesn’t wait until it goes into a survival mode before it makes changes. We are borrowing an idea from the business world, the notion of continuous improvement where you work constantly at productive changes to stay ahead of the status quo. We don’t want to force our Alaska legislature into a level of unpredictable frustration, where the legislature takes unpredictable actions because we haven’t addressed Alaskan’s concerns. We have to act proactively. We can actively manage to stay ahead of that frustration point. For example, let’s not be predisposed to support every proposed new program or every proposed expansion of current programs, which then force a series of tuition hikes to fund them.

Speaking of programs, I know you’ve been doing a lot with FSMI and mining. Can you tell me what you are learning?

Gamble: There are two significant education and training areas in which the UA is heavily engaged because at the present they aren’t coordinated well across all our MAUs. One is fishing and one is in mining. The way we are approaching both looks very much the same.

We have about 80 programs across our systems that have something to do with Fisheries, Seafood and Maritime (FSMI). Fisheries is about Alaska’s manageable, renewable fish stock and associate industry. Seafood is the processing of everything from the crawlies on the bottom all the way up through the different levels of seafood to the surface. Maritime is about shipbuilding and the occupations that support ship maintenance and ship building. We’ve got classifications and workforce development, research, training and education going on in all those areas across our system, but they’re not intentionally integrated or well coordinated. So, we met with producers, the business in the seafood processing and fishing industries, and asked how can we better serve them and meet their requirements.

That’s the dialogue we are having right now. We’ve put together an advising group, with a UA cross-section of expertise, and we are dialoguing with these different commercial FSM companies asking what they need from us. From that will come a much improved and focused relationship with those industries, with the goal of turning out a workforce in the right numbers at the right time with the right education and training to meet their specific requirements, including their research-specific requirements.

Mining is following a similar paradigm. Those mining jobs are good jobs. When you plug an Alaskan into workforce development, you train them for mining, and they graduate and are immediately hired, that’s noteworthy for Alaska.   Now, we aren’t necessarily recruiting them for a four-year degree right away. But in Alaska, that’s okay. They can work at that good job for four or five years at top pay, and come back later to the university to complete the next step in their lifelong learning journey.   We want to make that prospect attractive here at UA. We are working towards a multi-discipline approach for a single point of contact to programs and courses related to mineral development and mining to include research, education, training and outreach needs.

Gamble prepares to speak at the Statewide Service Awards in April 2011. Photo by Monique Musick.
Gamble prepares to speak at the Statewide Service Awards in April 2011. Photo by Wes Schaefer.

What’s one of the most surprising things you’ve experienced so far as president? Going from military, to railroad, to here, that’s an adjustment you chose when you could have retired. Surely, there have been some surprises along the way.

Gamble: Yes, in fact my original intention was to retire in 2010. I was on a university board down in Alabama. Some of the academic associated board members there were actually the ones that first brought up the idea that I should consider transitioning into higher education and that many universities were hiring non-traditional presidents. The retirement rate among presidents in the lower 48 due to age, coupled with schools that were going through very tough financial problems had caused a number of presidents and chancellors to leave their positions. Vacancies were opening up, and I was seriously encouraged to look into that. My interests coincided with the opening of this job. In the Air Force, especially as I got to be more senior, I became more and more involved in education. I was on the Department of Defense school advisory board in Washington. I was the inner island school board president in Okinawa. I was the commandant at the Air Force Academy. I was on the Air University board for the Air Force. I had been involved in many ways with education and ultimately with higher education. A lot of my previous career success was due to people who had worked for me that were highly educated, so I admired good education. It all finally came together and one day I woke up and decided it was something I would really like to do. At the time I had been President of the Alaska Railroad Corp. for nine years. I’ve always been involved with public service. It’s been my whole life. The opportunity to continue Alaska public service at UA was very appealing. I was thrilled when chosen.

What is your favorite part of this job?

Gamble: On a personal note the intellectual challenge is the most fun. Every now and then you have these “ah ha” moments where you’re smothered in data and all of a sudden something clicks. It’s like someone pulled a curtain back and revealed an entirely new view. Those moments are terrific. The trick is then—how do I make this work? I’ve experienced as much or more intellectual challenge with this job as with anything else I’ve done.

On a professional note, the responsibility for turning out quality UA graduates who are better prepared for life than ever before, who can meet the challenges in Alaska and in today’s complex resource limited world, is a rare privilege and an honor.

A Cinematic Conclusion

Results from the sorting hat personality quiz indicated that Gamble is a Hufflepuff, just as Regent Jacobson. Gamble reflects the qualities of Hufflepuff House from the Harry Potter tales. A Hufflepuff’s characteristics mostly center on people, matching his overall leadership style too: he sees others as equals, accepts everyone for who they are, is hardworking, unafraid of toil and is humble and honest.

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