Q and A Conversation with Dana Thomas: Hufflepuff

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.

Interview conducted and written by Rachel Voris

When meeting Dana Thomas for the first time, he makes a point to shake your hand, ask your name, and he tries to make you feel comfortable in an environment within minutes. That’s just the kind of guy he is. Maybe it’s the 30 years he spent as an educator, where he earned a reputation for being incredibly challenging but kind, fair and transformative. Or maybe it’s because he is a life-long Alaskan with experience ranging from work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to earning the Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching Award. Any way you look at it, statewide is lucky to have Dana Thomas on board as vice president of academic affairs, paving a new way for success.

Thomas, an American Canoe Association Certified instructor, stands at Dennison Fork.

Were you born and raised in Fairbanks?

Yes, I have spent most my life living and working in Fairbanks, but I'm more traveled than that may imply. �My family and I lived four years in the Middle East while working for UAF – two years in Yemen and two years in the Sultanate of Oman. In Yemen I helped organize the first national survey of agriculture, and in Oman I worked on a fisheries sampling program summarizing catch and effort in 56 villages. Both experiences were associated with the U.S. Agency for International Development. �More recently I visited Peru and Turkey just for fun.

Ultimately, my life has been in Fairbanks, especially within the university. My bachelor’s degree in biology was from the University of Alaska, before there was University of Alaska Fairbanks or Southeast, so in a lot of ways I’ve come full circle. I did graduate work at Oregon State University in Corvallis, earning a master’s and doctoral degree in statistics there.

Did you move right into graduate work after completing your bachelor’s degree?

I almost had to start over with taking math to become prepared for graduate work in statistics. I did all of the preparation work at Oregon State.

What made you make the transition into statistics from biology?

It’s a funny story. As a senior finishing my biology program I wanted to become a biologist. There were registers for people interested in being a biologist, so I went and looked, and there were about 250 people on it—many with master’s or doctoral degrees. I didn’t see myself getting to that point with my education. I came to the realization that the vast majority of biologists tend to work on one species for their entire life. They were out in the field a lot, away from their families. I didn’t want either of those things.

Strangely enough, I went and took the plumbers apprenticeship test. As part of that test, there was an omnibus skills assessment. The guy who gave me the assessment laughed at the results – his conclusion was that I should be a math teacher; which seemed pretty far off since I was just finishing my biology degree. In fact, I had to miss class for the assessment, which was unusual for me. I had two faculty members the next day comment on my absence. I told them about the apprenticeship and they told me I needed to go to graduate school instead. I didn’t see doing that because of the problems mentioned earlier with biology. They knew my strengths were with the quantitative side with biology – population dynamics, genetics and things with strong quantitative content. They asked if I had taken a statistics class, which no one takes unless they have to, so I hadn’t. They talked me into taking it as an elective. All my friends thought I was nuts, but I just loved it.

Fish and Game was hiring biometricians – someone who applies statistics to biological settings. UA did not offer a statistics program of any kind, and so I decided to go to Oregon State. My original intention was to just earn the 18 required credit hours to become a biometrician, but I loved my time there so I completed a master’s degree. When I finished my master’s degree at Oregon State, I came back to Alaska and worked in Kodiak as a biometrician for Fish and Game.

I eventually returned to Oregon State to complete my doctorate, where I gained a lot of teaching experience. When UAF opened the very first position for assistant professor of statistics in the math department, I applied for it. There were statisticians before me but in different departments like biology. I was the first statistician hired in the math department in a tenure track position.

Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher

How long did you teach?

I taught at UAF for 29 years.

Did you retire from that position?

No, but a few years ago I gave up my faculty position because I knew I would finish my tenure with the university in an administrative role; I had been serving this way already for seven years. For the first four, I taught and did administrative work, but I haven’t done that since I’ve been at statewide.

Do you miss teaching?

Yes, that is one of the biggest challenges I have now. Interacting with students and helping them learn is something I’m passionate about. It’s very challenging to give that up.

I still view myself as an educator though. Before, I educated students and other faculty and staff. Here, a big part of my roll is educating members of the Board of Regents, legislators and other administrators about how academics, shared governance and research work. I continue my role, just with a different audience.

Tell me about being a canoe instructor.

I’m an American Canoe Association Certified Instructor. For a long time I was the only one in the state – I might still be. I taught canoeing for UAF Outdoor Adventures for many years just for fun. There are a lot of people who aren’t sure of what they’re doing in canoes. A little bit of instruction goes a long way.

Just last weekend I was out and paddled next to a mink. I particularly enjoy canoeing on white water.

Thomas surfs on white water in his canoe.

What is something you have yet to accomplish in your personal life?

I want to be able to roll an open canoe – go upside down and roll back up. People do it on kayaks all the time but not as many are able do it in a canoe.

That’s something people intentionally do?

Yes, and there are people in Alaska that can do it. You get an ice cream headache because of the cold water, but it’s a great rush.

From Nanook to Statewide

What has your learning curve been like over the past year?

I was appointed in an interim role on May 1 and moved into the position permanently on September 1. I had to learn the protocol with the Board of Regents, the president, and with the legislature. Those were relatively quick studies since everyone is familiar with the protocol. I had to get used to the way that UA Statewide runs the budget since it is distinctly different from the way UAF runs it. I also had to learn about the units that report directly to me.

Most of my former experience was with baccalaureate and graduate programs. I had some experience with certificate and associate programs, but I had to learn much more about these programs and workforce programs generally.

President Gamble speaks very highly about you and the relationship you share. What has it been like building that relationship over the past year?

Great. I like working with President Gamble. He’s a lifelong learner and pursues information that he needs for his decision making and understanding. Evidence does change his mind and we share an interest in evidence-based leadership. It’s an open, working relationship.

What is one of the most difficult parts about your position?

Normally, the hardest part of an administrative position is personnel decisions. That has not been the case to date in this position. The most challenging part for me has been the financial side of the job. I came in when statewide revenue was declining. Having to deal with that while I was still learning the job and the unit was challenging. Those are always hard decisions – where to cut, how to cut. When you’re still learning, you don’t have the understanding of your units needed to make those hard decisions.

What’s something surprising you’ve experience over the past year?

The range of questions that come from the legislature has been a surprise. Maybe that’s enough said.

Thomas rides his canoe on the Chulitna River in 2011.

SDI and Academic Advising

What can you tell me about work related to SDI academic advising that has happened this year?

Transfer credits is a huge issue we’ve been dealing with this year. Whenever someone talks to the Board of Regents or the legislature about new or existing programs, one of the first questions asked is if the program credits transfer. It’s a huge priority. UA just needs to do better in this area, and we have made great progress on this issue this year.

The solution I propose to make further progress is straightforward. Once each fall, we generate a list of courses that didn’t transfer that year and then ask why – then we see what can be done about it. To continuously improve, we do this each year. Specialized accreditation differs at each institution, so we won’t be able to transfer everything, but if we can take care of the vast majority it will be good. We want to keep working the issue to reduce this important student issue. That’s a collaborative effort between all institutions within the system.

How is the big picture of SDI becoming more concrete for people to see, feel and witness?

Something very concrete being developed right now are effect statements. SDI has evolved from listening sessions, to the five themes of SDI and now to effect statements. The statements are the change we want to see within the university.

These statements are being written and then can be measured. People want to jump to a conclusion without defining what it is we want to achieve. For example, we want to accelerate remedial and developmental education so that people can get degrees faster. We also want to improve the transfer of credits. However, these are tactics used for students finishing programs in a timely fashion; that is the end result or effect we want to achieve.

On a national level, there is a question of what proportion of full-time students finish within 150 percent of normal time to programs. It sounds funny, but if it is a two-year program, how many students finish in three years. If it’s a four-year program, how many students finish in six years?

An effect statement around that idea might be: students complete programs within 150 percent of the normal time to do so, which is our goal. Everything else is technical and operational approach to get us there. Those are the kinds of statements we are trying to write – the end result statements. Then, we can measure those things and see if we are making progress on them.

As far as other concrete SDI material, I have meet with deans and directors at each MAU. Many of the suggestions the deans and directors had proposed to fix issues at the UA were technical and operational tactics. The deans and directors recognized the distinction between the effect and the approaches to get us there. We made headway on drafting effect statements, but we also realized what the importance of the effects we are trying to achieve.

Dana Thomas speaks with Chancellor John Pugh at a Board of Regents meeting earlier this year.
Deans and directors sit at a table at a meeting.
A total of 36 UAF Deans and Directors took part in a SDI work-session led by Dana Thomas earlier in the year. The meeting was held at the UAF Wood Center.

The University of Alaska is not alone in this new direction and change initiative. How does the SDI effort compare to other higher education institutions in the nation?

Most institutions nationwide (46 of the 50 states) have had significant budget reductions to higher education and have been forced into change simply because of severe state budget cuts. Alaska is one of four states not in that situation. So, we are leading change from the advantage of not having to deal with budget cuts. That is putting us ahead of the curve. We aren’t under the same financial pressure of higher education in other states. We don’t want to be behind the curve. We are trying to change from our own initiate in a proactive way instead of reactive.

There are a number of things that are clear national agenda items. One of those issues is better connecting higher education to employment. Another one is dealing with the time to degree issue and affordability issues, including accelerating developmental education. We are watching what’s happening in other states and we are using the Strategic Direction Initiative to stay ahead of those curves.

Thomas sits with other statewide staff members at the Butrovich holiday party.

Developmental education seems to be a major priority right now. Is this a bigger issue in Alaska than other states?

There are two key populations here to know about. There are incoming students, coming directly out of high school to us. We have too many of those students needing developmental education, particularly in mathematics. But, the majority of students that need developmental education are not these students.

Working adults with families returning to the university need developmental education. These are people who didn’t know they needed college, so they are coming from a very different place than traditional first-time freshman students. These post-traditional students realize they need higher education to move into what they really want to do in life, so some of the efforts feel like starting over and they need developmental education to do so.

I read a recent quote by you saying, “Academic change cannot occur without faculty engagement. The faculty is absolutely critical.” Can you talk to me about that?

This is why we are spending time talking with deans – they assign faculty work loads. Here’s an example. Current students, their parents, and K-12 secondary education teachers and counselors would really like to know what it takes to have all the necessary knowledge and skills for collegiate courses, specifically within math and English at the UA.

We don’t want to answer them based on each separately accredited institution (UAA, UAF, UAS and Prince William Sound Community College). We want to give them an answer for UA as a system. Historically, we’ve had separate placement criteria for the three institutions. But recently English faculty across the system joined together and said they wanted to have common course placement in English for all institutions. I asked how I could support that effort and really just helped put the necessary people in the same room together.

Faculty members need to make those decisions like course placement criteria because it has to do with academic quality – that’s the role of faculty. I would not want statewide dictating this. My role, and the role of the regents, might be to say we need to have common placement, but you need to sort out what that is.

Faculty members also have to take part in the transfer credit conversation as well. It’s their courses. They teach the courses and know the content. What are appropriate transfers and what are not? We can tell them what we would like to achieve – reducing transfer credit issues – but how do we go about that? That should largely be up to faculty.

UA faculty members have already taken a huge step on the transfer issue. One of the biggest problems we had was that some UA institutions have a plus/minus grading system and some do not and that difference inhibited transfer of credit, especially for grades of C-. We asked the three faculty senates to fix this and they did, which has significantly reduced transfer credit issues.

How have you measured what works and what doesn’t with SDI?

We have draft metrics lined up with the draft effect statements right now. As we finalize the effect statements, the metrics will become clear. If you’re trying to achieve a certain effect, you have to be able to measure it. We’ve been developing those metrics in parallel to the statements. I received input on the metrics from the deans and directors during my recent meetings with them.

One example relating to the student achievement and attainment theme would be that full-time students complete their degree within 150 percent of the normal completion time. The obvious metric is the proportion of students graduating within that time frame.

Our goal with the effect statements is to have statements that are meaningful and reasonable to measure and assess. Some effects will be particularly challenging. An effect in the accountability theme is to see diverse representation of the Alaska population among students, graduates, faculty, staff, and administration. One of those key elements would be representation of Alaska Natives. We are doing well in terms of representing Alaska Natives among students, but we aren’t doing as well in the representation among graduates, faculty, staff, and administrators.

What role does staff play in SDI?

We want staff – everyone really – to adopt a commitment to continuous improvement, to regularly question how we do things and explore new approaches, and we want staff and their supervisors to be open to discussing new approaches. Humans by our nature sometimes struggle with change, but we want to see change to improve outcomes.

Some recent changes we have seen are electronic time sheets. There were some bugs to fix, but I would say that it’s working remarkably well. We are moving travel documentation to electronic submissions. Those are tactical changes. We are doing the same operations, but there are revisions to the operations that can make it better. Change doesn’t have to be a daily conversation, but even taking an hour once a month to see what could be changed is really important. Just ask why. Conditions change. We should adapt.

What do you want staff to know the most about SDI?

This is about making the UA System better. We are actively looking for that opportunity. The role of staff in making that happen is valuable and needed.

Leadership is about taking initiative and following your own philosophy. A lot of people will say you can’t demonstrate leadership without an element of authority. I disagree with that. From my personal experience, anyone can lead from anywhere by coming up with evidence-based ideas with rationale and a plan for the intended change. I really believe you can lead from wherever you are.

Vice President of Academic Affairs Dana Thomas leads part of the discussion during an education consortium earlier this year.

A Cinematic Snapshot of Dana Thomas

Results from the sorting hat personality quiz indicated that Thomas is a Hufflepuff. Thomas reflects the qualities of Hufflepuff House from the Harry Potter tales. A Hufflepuff’s characteristics mostly center on hardwork and loyalty, which explains why Thomas has been a part of the UA System for the majority of his lifetime. Hufflepuff's pride themselves on devotion, fairness, being just, and kindess. Some other notable Hufflepuffs include President Gamble, Regent Jacobson, Cedric Diggory and Professor Pomona Sprout.

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