Q and A Conversation with Carla Beam

By Monique Musick, Public Affairs

Sitting down for a conversation with Carla Beam is an energizing experience. There is nothing slow or mild about the hard-working UA leader who serves dual roles as vice president for university relations and president of the University of Alaska Foundation, the separate non-profit organization that accepts, stewards and invests privately donated money to UA academic programs and scholarships. From state politics to the national agenda, VP Beam keeps the big picture in focus and is truly helping lead UA down the path of continuous improvement, the impetus behind the ongoing change initiative called Shaping Alaskas Future.

Carla Beam

Vice President for University Relations and President of the University of Alaska Foundation

The start of the legislative session is under way in Juneau. What obstacles does UA face this year and how will we overcome them? 

Revenue projections show a $2 billion deficit in the State of Alaska, and that upcoming years will be no better. The governor asked everyone to cut back. Alaska’s lost a third of its revenue in just a few years due to declining oil production and lower tax income. The governor has proposed reductions to UA's budget by about 5 percent. It's possible the House will propose even more cuts.

The lost revenue isn’t something we expect to be a one-time blip. So while we are figuring out what to do legislatively we are having ongoing internal conversations across the system on how to manage the need to cut while continuing to deliver excellence and meet the needs of the state of Alaska

On the capital side, we have some really big needs and some big ticket items this year: the completion of the engineering buildings and the combined heat and power plant. In this kind of environment we don't know how the conversation is going to unfold. They are both significant needs.

We really are looking at what is most important, the areas that are investments. An investment in deferred maintenance is really an investment in bringing our annual operating costs down. That's why we continue to request deferred maintenance funding.

We're going to do our best to provide information that is transparent, that makes a compelling case, but we fully realize we are facing a very tough situation with a desire and need to cut. And everyone is going to be making the same compelling case — not just the university.

There are big changes nationally, evolving standards, new policy, budget cutshow are we adapting to that as well?

We are certainly monitoring appropriations and how that impacts the university. We prioritize and focus on the expertise areas we do as the UA system that position us uniquely. For example research related to the Arctic, climate change, arctic oil spill response — niches where we excel. We're working very hard to position the University of Alaska so that we are going to have the best chance for continued funding or getting funding in new areas. The UAV program is a great example. UAF has the test site designation now and we are continuing to look at what funding opportunities might be linked to that.

What are your strongest beliefs about the university?

We play a huge role in so many ways. Sometimes we don't toot our own horn enough about those things. In the short time I've been here I've seen our contributions to economic development. I've seen the contributions to the preservation of unique cultures in the state. I've seen the contributions we make to research that is nationally and internationally relevant in areas related to climate change, natural hazards and monitoring related to that. And I see an area where I had no idea that we had impact: research that influences Alaska public policy decisions on the state level, on the very local level, and within industries too. Beyond the core mission of educating Alaska students I think we have a huge impact on so many different areas in the state. I've seen some things in fisheries technology, for example, where our information has influenced better policies and practices.

This university truly is a place for anyone in Alaska who wants to pursue some kind of advanced education beyond K-12. Whether it's a certificate program, vocational technology or a Ph.D., there really is a place. It serves the people of Alaska well, and increasingly well. The quality of this institution keeps getting better and better. Shaping Alaska's Future is aimed at stepping it up.

You operated a private public relations firm and worked for BP from 1990-2009. How has that experience helped you in your current role?  And how is it different being in the university vs. private industry?

All of the diverse experiences I had before helped give a lot of different perspectives to my work here. I bring an outside-of-the-university perspective that is unique. Obviously it has to be carefully considered whether or not the perspective is relevant, but it never hurts to look at something through a different lens.

When you're a business operator, you are only as good as the last project you accomplished. Hopefully I bring some of that. I am constantly looking at what we want to achieve, or attain, which correlates a huge amount with what we are trying to do with the Shaping Alaska's Future Effect Statements. We're not just looking at what we want to fix, we're talking about what we want to see happen as a result of our effort. What does success look like? That's a very strong part of corporate culture.

To achieve the changes we want to bring about, it's going to take a commitment to developing leaders. My corporate experience was one where there was a very strong focus on leadership development. It was about the personal transformation of leaders so they could be more effective in overcoming obstacles.

Decision-making involves a lot more people at the university than in the private corporate world. It's a very different process. Consequently things move a little slower. Which doesn't mean there's not a lot more to do. In both there are tremendously committed people who really care and want to make a difference. It's just a little more challenging here. It's a much more complex structure.

Beam and other UA leaders participate in a development course delivered by the Center for Creative Leadership.

One of the goals of your dual appointment was to strengthen the relationship between the UA Foundation and the UA System; can you describe some ways that this has happened?

We work much more closely integrating the development efforts with the broader advancement efforts across the system. The federal side is about protecting and enhancing our federal dollars. Same with the state. Then, at the Foundation and in development, it's about private fundraising. These are three different areas of revenue for the university. I look at how we approach each. The goal is that we raise more private dollars. All of these sources of funding are really critically important to the university. It helps to see how each contributes and how we might better leverage each to the benefit of the university.

Private money provides an opportunity to excel in areas that public money may not allow us to do. We see great potential in raising more private dollars. Being so involved in the university relations side of things, I see areas and ways of being more creative in how we do that. The more we share the impact of the university broadly, and to our donors, the more they are compelled to support us. Fundraising and development are very long-term relationships and efforts. We continue to build on reputation. It builds support, which in turn helps build more excellence. It's a virtuous cycle — it keeps adding improvement.

Right now we are working with the three universities to create the first-ever system development plan. Each one of the three universities has always had their own very detailed plan for development, but this is the first time we've in addition had a system plan with goals we've identified. For example, we all agree that increasing alumni participation is really important. So we are listing that as a strategy and setting some specific goals for each of the three universities in that area. We also want to put attention on increasing major gifts from individuals. In Alaska, most giving comes from corporations or government, which is different from most other states. We see tremendous potential in increasing individual support. In this combined role I feel like I can pull together system conversations — where we talk about when to work together and when to do our own thing.

Whats one of the most difficult parts about your position?

My own personal impatience to see things change. There was a huge learning curve for me — still is.

We are focused a lot on culture change here — on continuous change. When I came on board I found it really interesting — when I joined B.P. in the early 90s they were just starting to talk about the need for continuous change, continuous improvement. There was a lot of resistance. It very quickly became comfortable because they provided us with the skills and tools not only to adapt to change, but to implement and drive change where we thought it was necessary. We are still learning the skills of driving change here.

Tell me about some of the people you've met while working on behalf of the university and UA Foundation.

We have great staff on the Foundation. I look at some of the people who have been there for a long time — Jim Lynch and Tammi Weaver — they are so well respected by people who are very knowledgeable in the investment, finance and accounting world. One of our newer people, Megan Riebe, brings some great outside experience to the UA Foundation. The whole public affairs staff is great. Kate Ripley has been in the state since birth and brings great perspective. 

I'm based in Anchorage but its great to come up to Fairbanks and meet people up here. For example, long-time board member Carolyn Wallace. I'm honored to have a long-standing invitation to join her for lunch on Fridays. It's people like Carolyn who have been with the university so long — right down to the new graduates who are so excited to have graduated from the university and to now be working for it.

Also the three chancellors, I've known them for a long time in different contexts. To come on board and get to know them better and see the depth of their knowledge, intelligence, their commitment to the university has been great. Each has a different approach, which is really interesting. I see transformation happening. 

It's been really interesting being able to work for President Gamble, to see how much passion he has for higher education, and how much study and knowledge he brought before coming here. It is clear he is very linked-in to what is happening in higher education.

One of the other people I have had more opportunity to interact with since coming here is Grace Schaible. She's a long-time, significant donor in a very quiet way. She's made such an impact on the university. When I see somebody like Grace, who's been an attorney general, has been involved as regent, trustee, I see that many of the people who come out of the UA system really have their lives intertwined with the institution. It really tells you the impact. It's proof we did something right back when she was a student that she is still so passionately committed to the university today, both with her volunteer service and significant dollars.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Evolving, always. Mostly I know what I'm supposed to be doing, and I do it much of the time, but we are all human, and there are times I don't do as well as I should. So that' s a reflection on “evolving”— an acknowledgement that just as institutions change, we have to as well. I'd like to believe I'm really a participative leader, but sometimes I get in and micro-manage. My goal is to be a leader that includes people, includes different perspectives, but is still decisive. One that gets input from others then makes decisions and moves forward. I'm still learning to be the kind of leader who deliberates, but then makes a firm decision and moves forward. That's challenging.

I did a very in-depth leadership development program at BP. I was recommended for it. I think I was 56 at the time. I was stunned that they would invest in me at that stage in my career. I asked the woman who recommended me, why. She said they selected people they thought would have impact on the organization — and I was one of them. It was hugely transformative to me personally. It made me realize some of the obstacles I'd put up myself. When I hit an obstacle now, I look it as something that is temporary. I think about how I move over or around it. I'm not stopped by it. The program gave me the skills to do that. It taught me that blaming other people, or ascribing motives, or creating a story about what is going on with other people, is not helpful. I work really hard to assume the best about other people. If I'm not getting my point across, it's not the other person, it's “Gosh, I need to figure out what's unclear. I need to figure out what's not getting across, what's not making sense, why we're not in agreement and see what I need to do to fix it.” So, being accountable, finding solutions — not just owning the problems, but owning the solutions to problems. It's one thing to say it's my fault — which is a good trait in a leader — but I think that true leaders come up with solutions as well.

You have a background of volunteer leadership for a long list of Alaska organizations. Do you continue to volunteer outside work?

Your timing on this is fascinating. I just finished my final term on the Alaska Community Foundation board. I served nine years on that board. I've been on a lot of different boards. In Alaska there are so many non-profits — if you volunteer for an organization you're likely to end up serving on their board of directors. From a fairly early age I was on boards. I had to learn a lot about that and how they operated. It's been extremely beneficial to my career development in addition to being able to contribute to community improvement.

After finishing this stint on the ACF board I've committed to taking a time out from board service. I'll still look at other opportunities to volunteer, but I need to take time now to really focus on this job — it's pretty all-consuming. I think you should only volunteer for a board if you really fully commit and do it whole-heartedly. The other reason I want to step back is to really think about the impact I want to have with my volunteer time. I am thinking about this in my philanthropic commitments too. You reach a certain age and want to think about what kind of legacy you'll leave with both your time and financial resources.

I mentioned Grace Schaible earlier. Unbeknownst to her probably, she was an early philanthropic mentor for me. I saw her receive an award for her philanthropy, and what I saw was a woman filled with joy in what she was doing. As I've gotten to know Grace, I've learned that she's very intentional in how she gives her money. That, and some other things, made me think I wanted to really spend some time thinking about what types of things are most important to me.

Its January now. If a year from now we look back to celebrate what a great year weve had, what will we have achieved in 2014? How are you working with other leaders to achieve this?

A year is a really short time. I'm hoping that Shaping Alaska's Future will have taken off. If we are having different conversations throughout the system in a year—if we're done talking about what's wrong and instead are talking about what we've accomplished, and what opportunities remain — that's what I'd like to see. Different conversations, real positive dialog about what the university is doing well. And I'd like to see the public engaged. I'd like to see them growing in their pride of the university.

I know that you went to Reed College in Oregon. Is that where you grew up? What brought you to Alaska?

I grew up in Seattle. When I was looking for colleges I didn't really know what I wanted to do. But I was really good in math at the time. A teacher told me that Reed had a good math program. It had pretty liberal leanings in terms of the student population, but it had a very rigorous academic program and a lot of very smart students. For the first time in my life I was not an A student. I was in the middle of the pack and working really hard to stay there.

I had a decision to make about whether or not to stay. I took a year off before my senior year knowing we had to write a bachelor's thesis and I was not prepared. I was fried just trying to keep up. 

I travelled around Europe for the year. When I got back, a college friend from Alaska invited me to come up for the summer. I had enough money for a ticket, and she had a place for me to stay: in the file room of her father's law office. I lined up two restaurant jobs. It was in 1975, the pipeline was in the midst of construction and it was a really exciting place to be. I also made enough money to finish out school. 

I had promised my father I would finish college. So I went back to Reed with renewed energy. I realized that even though I wasn't the smartest person in the room, that was an OK place to be, because I learned so much more. And I also discovered my strengths...determination and a capacity for hard work.

I also learned from Reed fearlessness about what I don't know. That has served me really well in Alaska. What they taught us was how to frame a question or a problem and solve it. 

When I got off the plane the first time I came here in May of '75, I felt like I'd come home. I had a real connection to the land. I truly had a physical feeling when I got off the plane that this was where I belonged. So when I finished at Reed, I returned. I can't imagine living anywhere else.

You are a very active person. You run marathons and enjoy white water rafting. Have you always been involved in these kinds of activities?

The outdoors is something I pretty much grew up with. My parents were mountain climbers and skiers. I have to admit that I worked really hard at my profession for many years, still do, but balance is really important. So for me balance is running a marathon or white water rafting. I know that's crazy. I'm just not happy if I'm not physically pushing the limits a bit. I like to do things that scare me. That includes taking this job.

But there is a fine line between fear and panic. For me fear is a motivator. It pushes me beyond the comfort zone which is what I think propels change and keeps you alive. Panic is when you're out of control completely. You don' t want to go there.

Outdoor adventures are also a great way to meet and get to know interesting people and explore new places. I learned a lot about budget officer Michelle Rizk during the five or so hours we spent running the Equinox Marathon this past fall.

Who are your role models and why?

There have been a lot. My parents were each very different, but together provided a powerful example of how to live. My mother was the disciplined, very hard working, focused person. And my father was the joie de vivre, say yes to everything, try anything and talk to everyone kind of person. Both of them have passed now, but today I look at the impact they had. To me, my life is good when I'm balancing my two parents and the examples that they set.

At the current time, my role models often are younger people. I have a number of friends in their 20s and 30s. I am finding there is such a unique perspective among them. They really do care about the greater good and seeing the world become better than it is. They are more accepting of and open to differences.

Any parting thoughts?

Yes. The UA system is entering into a major change effort. We should all embrace it. I've learned over the years that if I fully engage in needed changes, even when the impacts to me might be significant, it always turns out good.  

Back to Top