UAA’s interim chancellor Sam Gingerich has made a career as a university administrator for more than 30 years. He rose through the ranks of higher education beginning as a chemistry professor, moving to department chair and on, until he reached the highest echelons of university administration. But his path to higher ed started long before he walked into a university lecture hall with much simpler beginnings.
A dairy farm and one-room schoolhouse
Sam is the second of five children. He and his four sisters grew up on a dairy farm in northern New York, where, as the only boy, his days started with a 5 a.m. wake-up call to tend to the animals and farm. His parents had big dreams for their children and instilled in them the value of education. They pushed Sam and his sisters to do well in school, encouraging them to seek a university education once they graduated high school.
Young Sam’s education began in a one-room schoolhouse with students from kindergarten to sixth grade. Although a self-described hyperactive child, he was eager to learn. In 1957, the schools in northern New York consolidated and he was transferred from his one-room schoolhouse to nearby Lovell Academy Central School. He was placed in second grade despite being advanced for his age, reading at a third grade level and performing math and science with his fourth grade peers. These formative educational years would foreshadow his path later in life into higher education.
“It was that drive to and for education, that in many ways led me to a career in education,” Sam said.
After graduating from high school, Sam headed to Goshen College, a small private liberal arts college in Indiana. When it came time to pick his major in his junior year, the choice was pretty clear.
“It was always going to be math or chemistry,” he said. “I am the second best person at math that I know—my father was the best.”
But despite his mathematical talents, the idea of spending graduate school sitting in a classroom crunching numbers didn’t excite him the way chemistry did. So he chose chemistry. Being in a lab, collaborating with his peers, sharing ideas—and the occasional possibility of creating a few explosions—led to a master’s from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from Montana State University, both in the field of chemistry.
Chemistry came with its own set of challenges, particularly an organic chemistry class, which Sam admittedly says tends to be problematic, even for the best students. He almost failed. In fact, he was failing, until his professor pulled him aside and offered support and words of encouragement. It was enough to give him the confidence to keep pushing forward. It proved to be a valuable lesson. One that he’s carried with him throughout his career and passed on to students and those he’s had the opportunity to mentor.
“Along the way there are always people that those of us in education meet and it’s wonderful, because as we meet them, we can help them understand their potential and give them the confidence to fail,” Sam said. “Because if you’re going to reach your potential, you’re going to fail—a whole bunch of times.”
Transitioning from professor to administrator
For Sam, the world of chemistry opened the doors of higher education. It’s a discipline that not only requires strong analytic, problem-solving and mathematical skills, but also a degree of creativity and ingenuity. And unbeknownst to Sam at the time, these skills would later serve him well as a university administrator.
“I was at an institution that was under the control of the South Dakota Board of Regents—much like the University of Alaska system—and so there were people who were generating numbers and painting a picture for how the world worked,” said Sam. “I could look at those numbers and I could paint a set of different pictures.”
He’s often been told he has a knack for seeing a problem or an issue differently than everyone else, and when it comes to the broad scope of university administration it’s important to be able to tackle an issue from all angles.
“A lot of it is just quantitative ways of looking at institutions,” he said. “As an institution, we need to be able to use data to evaluate how we are doing things to move forward.”
Administration is similar to chemistry in that you know the problem in the beginning, know where you want to end up, it’s just the middle part that needs figuring out—and, he said, that’s where the analytics, logic and creativity come in.
“As a chemist you have to figure out what happened and to figure out the why,” he said. “In some ways, the ‘why’ becomes the most important part of it.”
UAA and interim chancellor
Sam came to Alaska following his wife, Erin Holmes, when she took a job at UAA as vice provost of institutional research. It wasn’t long after that former Chancellor Tom Case and former Provost Bear Baker tapped him for his administration expertise in higher education to serve as UAA’s interim provost.
In July 2017, when Case retired, Sam agreed to serve as interim chancellor. He’s enjoyed his role so far, but says his work has changed significantly.
“As a provost, you commonly have 10 to 15 direct reports and, while there may be limited control, you’re touching the operations of everything,” Sam said. “The chancellor’s role is much more externally focused. It is my primary responsibility to work with President Johnson, the other chancellors and leadership at UA; to represent UAA to President Johnson and also to the board; and to represent UAA to our many publics. It is a more external view, whereas the provost is more internal.”
One of the perks according to Sam? Not being in the office at all hours of the day and night poring over reports and having a little more time to be the public face of the university. He enjoys his chancellor duties of attending volleyball and basketball games in the Alaska Airlines Center, as well as performing arts, lectures and other campus events.
Higher education has taken Sam from the family farm to professor to university administrator, and although the locations and roles may have changed, one thing has remained consistent: his commitment to students and ensuring that each institution he works for provides the best education and resources available to the community.
“The passion for the enterprise has to be the same,” Sam said. For him, education led to a path of opportunities which he may have not otherwise have been afforded. This is at the heart of his love for education and continuing to work and advocate for it—a way to pay it forward—whether that’s at UAA, in Alaska or beyond.
Bonus Quickfire Q&A
Q: iPhone or Android?
A: “iPhone. I’m only on my third, an iPhone 6. I buy a cell phone and I use it until it dies.”
Q: What are you currently reading?
A: “Heat Lightning by John Sandford. He writes Minnesota crime stories. They’re good stories and you can stop in the middle of a sentence and you can come back and keep reading.”
Q: Favorite TV shows?
A: “Cooking shows and home and garden—like tiny houses. But I like to cook, I’m a chemist.”
Q: Go-to meal?
A: “A little bit of anything and everything. We organic chemists never really follow recipes. We just throw stuff in a pot and cook it—and that tends to be the way I cook. I read a lot of recipes or watch a cooking show and say, ‘wow, that looks good.’ Even if I never really know how they made it, I’ll see how close I can get.”
A: “Two terriers and a Havanese terrier cross (at least that’s what we’ve been told, we actually have no idea). All of our dogs are rescues. We have a Cairn terrier, that would be Toto, we have an Australian terrier and then Wills, he’s our most recent addition and he’s the Havanese mix. They take us out for a drag—regularly.”
A: “Fishing. We bought a cabin in northern New York where I grew up stream fishing for trout. I have fished all over Montana and Wyoming. As I tell people, somewhere here in Alaska in one of those small streams north of the Arctic Circle, there’s still a grayling or char with my name on them, and I’m going to go find them.”
Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement