After months of searching and considering a pool of more than 40 candidates, earlier this week the University of Alaska announced its selection of Aparna Dileep-Nageswaran Palmer as the new leader of the University of Alaska Southeast.
The Empire sat down — virtually — with Palmer and UA President Pat Pitney to hear more about the upcoming leader’s ambitions and goals for the regional university as she prepares to take over her role this summer.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What drew you to the University of Alaska?
Palmer: Several things drew me to UAS. First of all, I really enjoy the fact that it’s about giving a wide range of access to students, like having credentials that range from technical certificates, two-year degrees, professional and liberal arts, bachelor and graduate degrees — that meant a lot to me. That means there are so many different pathways in which students can access education and that is really important to me.
I am a person who, in her Ph.D, studied organisms that are on the coast of the Pacific Northwest, which ranges from Oregon to Washington to British Columbia and Alaska. Those are the organisms and ecosystems that I specialize in — so this area itself drew me in both scientifically and professionally.
I am a person who loves the outdoors — I hike, camp, snowshoe, kayak and canoe — so I felt like this would be a great place to really work at an unusual and interesting university, and yet have a really high quality of life because I would be close to the outdoors.
President Pitney, what characteristic drew you and the university system to choose Palmer to lead UAS?
Pitney: Back in late summer and early fall, we had a search committee made from people on campus and people in the community. Overall we had 44 candidates, and we brought in five finalists, and as you know Dr. Palmer was one of the finalists.
The finalists visited all three of the UAS campuses and met with different stakeholders, community partners, campus faculty, staff and students. Dr. Palmer really was a unanimous first choice in that process and it’s really because of the fact that she’s worked in a small regional university and understands the impact that a regional university has on the region’s economy, and how it can help drive the economy.
She’s also worked from a community college all the way through the whole academic spectrum and I think it’s that breath of understanding, but also knowing the importance of what a regional university can do for the economy of a place.
What UAS initiatives are you most excited to take on?
Palmer: There are several of them.The first one is student access and completion. We’re really looking at recruitment and retention of students. Getting them the education that they need as well as enabling them to complete their credentials and enter the workforce.
Fiscal sustainability is really important to me. I think Alaskans and universities in Alaska are very fortunate to have support from the state, but it’s really important to make sure that we can drive fiscal sustainability using other sources as well. Enrollment is a really important source, but so are partnerships, so is philanthropy.
That brings me to partnerships and workforce development. I really believe in making sure that a university is a strong driver of industry and workforce. I also think, from my experience at Colorado Mesa University, the ability for a university to prosper is very much tied to the ability of the region to prosper, and vice versa. If you don’t have that connection and commitment between those two entities, I don’t think you accomplish as much. So, really building those industry partnerships, thinking about the talent pipeline and workforce is really important to me.
And finally, employee success. I’m interested in faculty and staff being successful and having fulfilling lives. People who work at a university are mission driven, there’s something inside them that really wants to help the world, and they work very hard at that. But, we also need to make sure that they have an ability to work in a place where they are valued, where they can find that fulfillment and I’m excited to work towards that.
President Pitney, what ambitions for UAS would you like to see Palmer tackle?
Pitney: One of our priorities is expanding the presence of fisheries and ocean sciences in Southeast Alaska, and to me that is the gamut from occupational endorsements and work for people getting into the mariculture world and understanding mariculture and just general boat safety. And, it stretches all the way from the work we are doing jointly with our undergraduate fisheries with UAF and the fisheries and public policy degree. Southeast has a fabulous ocean sciences degree, which leads people into the workforce or into higher graduate studies. It’s just about taking advantage of where we live.
The other priority is workforce development. I think we have tremendous training to expand and build partnerships with the industry, and think differently about how we structure the program so they’re responsive and agile. And, of course, mining workforce training in the Juneau area.
Where do you see yourself and UAS in five years?
Palmer: In five years I feel like I will really enjoy the fruits of the collaborations that we’ve built. That UAS will be a center, not only for disciplines that President Pitney described, but really rising in terms of leadership in the nation in some of these areas.
I think UAS has so much potential and promise, and it already has a great deal of success. I look forward to building on that success — having strong enrollment, strong relationships with industries, supporting our Alaska Native students and really building some of these unique programs so we’re nationally recognized, but also distinctive and well supported regionally and locally.
Final question — are you excited for the rain?
Palmer: I love rain, I love the weather. I did my Ph.D. in Washington, I actually was in a coastal rainforest and did most of my collections off that coast, so I love mist, trees, coastlines and rocks — and I do love rain.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at email@example.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.