Regents had reason to pay retention bonus to University of Alaska president

Pat Jacobson
OPINION: University of Alaska President Pat Gamble is well worth the $320,000 retention bonus that university regents voted to pay. Pictured: Gamble.

I’d like to share with readers the University of Alaska Board of Regents’ thinking behind our decision to offer President Pat Gamble a new contract that contains a retention incentive.

The board’s action, by a 10-1 vote, was taken independently, with no interference from the governor or others, and after lengthy and serious consideration. The board believes UA is experiencing necessary transformation, and that it’s critical to retain the current president.

Leadership must emphasize innovation, reform and adaptability, exactly the qualities Gamble brings to the job. The university is an established and largely successful institution operating in an environment undergoing dramatic change nationwide, with increasing emphasis on effectiveness and outcomes. With 16 campuses and numerous outreach centers across our state, it’s a monumental task to get people and communities with different interests and who sometimes fear change to come together and determine how the university should adapt to better serve students and our state.

Critics suggest any skilled administrator, at any salary, could accomplish this task. The board knows this is not the case. It takes exceptional talent and hard work. It takes someone who knows the organization and the road ahead, inside out. It’s a task that the board believes Gamble is accomplishing in an exceptional way. He has achieved more in a few short years than many of us thought possible.

The president’s initial contract expired last May. His annual salary remains at $320,000, where it’s been since 2011. This new contract maintains that same salary for another two years, despite the fact that it’s 25 to 28 percent under market value for system presidents at comparable universities. You might then wonder, why not just increase his annual salary?

That wouldn’t have provided a direct incentive for the president to stay on the job through the end of May 2016. Gamble is an accomplished, nationally known and exceptional leader who could readily take his skills elsewhere or simply decide to retire. The retention incentive approach addresses market issues while creating a powerful inducement for Gamble to stay on board.

If he voluntarily departs the university before his contract term, he does not get a dime of the incentive. The president also remains an at-will employee, so the board may terminate his employment for no reason or any reason, at any time. If the board terminates the president’s contract at-will, the incentive would be reduced proportionately.

The board’s belief that Gamble is doing an exceptional job is backed by evidence, including the Shaping Alaska’s Future initiative, 23 effects or outcomes the entire university system has committed to achieve, now official UA policy. It represents unprecedented collaboration between multiple stakeholders.

The board believes UA needs consistent, strong leadership in place to ensure that initiative continues to move forward. Some of these important issues include improved retention and graduation rates, a student-centered culture at every level, including comprehensive advising, graduates that reflect the diversity of Alaska, and more. The board already has seen results and believes this president, at this time, is the effective, results-oriented leader we need.

Gamble has maintained good working relationships with the Legislature and governor. Strong funding from the state (the second highest level of state support to a public university system in the nation) is evidence of that relationship. Our campuses are beautiful, with top-notch facilities including new engineering buildings underway at UAA and UAF, new student housing in Kenai and Juneau, and ongoing efforts to ensure we continue to deliver quality and relevant academic programs throughout the state at an affordable price (UA tuition and fees among four-year public institutions is the second lowest in the country). Our students are thriving, with record numbers of degrees and certificates awarded, and full-time students taking extra classes to ensure timely graduation, to their direct benefit and the benefit of their communities.

The board understood at the time the decision was made on the retention incentive that reasonable people might disagree with us, particularly since it comes during difficult budgetary times for the entire state. We see some of that disagreement playing out in newspaper editorials and blogs in recent weeks. Understanding that there are different viewpoints, I thought it was important to share ours.

Pat Jacobson of Kodiak was appointed to the UA Board of Regents by Gov.Palin in 2007, and currently serves as chair of the board. She taught elementary school for 26 years, 25 of them in Kodiak. 

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com