John Pugh’s last day as chancellor of the University of Alaska Southeast is Friday. He’s retiring after almost three decades with the college. Pugh leaves a legacy of being much more than a chancellor to students — he was a teacher, adviser and friend.
Valerie Davidson was 19 when she met John Pugh. She was interning for the Alaska Legislature and studying elementary education at UAS. He was her college adviser.
“As many 19-year-olds are, I had these grand visions of how I was going to change the world and what I so appreciated about John was he enthusiastically accepted all of my grand visions of the world, but helped me to establish more realistic timelines,” Davidson says.
Davidson is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, a position Pugh formerly held. When she was appointed, Davidson and Pugh saw each other at a governor’s reception and they reconnected. She says he continues to be her adviser.
“You know there are just times in your life when you meet people who are there at exactly the right time, exactly the right place and for exactly the right reason. And I was very fortunate because I got not only one of those experiences with John but I got two, at times in my life that were really critical decision points for me,” Davidson says.
Pugh arrived in Juneau in 1978 to work for health and social services. Afterward he worked briefly as a legislative staffer before joining UAS in June of 1987 to help with the budget. By fall, Pugh was the dean of Arts and Sciences.
Since then the number of full-time students has grown from 300 to more than 800. Several facilities, like the Egan Library and residential housing, have been built on the Juneau campus.
Pugh was also part of the 1987 reorganization to integrate what was then Ketchikan Community College and Sitka Community College into campuses of UAS. Pugh says that was a hard transition.
“We worked constantly getting to Sitka and Ketchikan and making sure they felt a part of this, and I’d say it took a good ten years to get to where there was a real comfort level of trust,” Pugh says.
Ketchikan Campus Director Priscilla Schulte has been at the school for 35 years, back when it was a community college. She says Pugh has done a great job of being inclusive.
“We get the feeling that he understands our community. He has always kept us in mind so that when issues came up he was always, ‘What does Ketchikan think?’” Schulte says.
She says Pugh really supported the bachelor of liberal arts distance program, which helped UAS Ketchikan evolve.
“Once the pulp mill closed and we were losing the local students, moving into the e-learning was really important for us,” Schulte says.
Pugh was appointed chancellor in 1999. He says his biggest challenge was making sure UAS got enough funding to be a quality institution. With UAS representing less than 10 percent of the entire University of Alaska budget, Pugh says it was never about competing with the bigger schools for resources.
“We’re not UAF, we’re not UAA. We’re UAS. What is it that we can do? What can we do for our region? What can we do for the state?” Pugh says.
Pugh is known for walking around campus with a smile. He’s a self-proclaimed “glass half full” type of person, but if he ever did find himself down, “I would find where the students are and it always picked me up.”
UAS Student Body President Callie Conerton says Pugh would do anything to make the students laugh.
“John did the dunk tank at Spring Carnival and students, of course, lined up. How many students can say that they dunked their chancellor,” Conerton says.
He’s had pies in his face. He’s jumped into frigid water for the polar plunge. Pugh has even been duct taped to a library pillar.
Conerton says having an approachable college leader has made a difference in her academic career.
“It makes me want to attend school. It makes me realize that people care about me. One thing that UAS is great about is that it’s a community and so John was great about making sure that students knew that they were a part of something bigger than themselves,” Conerton says.
Pugh says he got just as much from the students as they got from him.
“Those interactions really buoyed me and gave me strength and it made me understand why I’m doing what I’m doing, helped me to really push harder to advocate for higher education,” Pugh says.
He says his departure from UAS is filled with mixed emotions.
“I often wonder what I’m going to do when I get up in the morning. I’ve said that to my wife. So not coming out here – that will be very different,” Pugh says.
Pugh became Chancellor Emeritus as UAS’s recent commencement ceremony. Pugh says that means he’ll have a permanent connection to the college. He doesn’t see the rank as just a title, but as a responsibility.