FAIRBANKS - Mark Hamilton has had what he calls "a seven-days-a-week job" for the past 43 years.
That will change June 10, his final day as president of the University of Alaska system. He's held that post since 1998, when the Board of Regents made the unorthodox decision to hire a U.S. Army major general as the university's new leader.
He'll spend this summer cleaning his cabin in Soldotna and settling back into the home he and his wife, Patty, own in Anchorage.
A moose-hunting trip probably is set for this fall, followed by whatever else he decides to pursue.
"I don't know what that's going to be, but I'm looking forward to it," Hamilton, 65, said with a smile.
His departure will represent the end of an era at UA, where Hamilton frequently is credited with reviving a stagnant system.
"Mark is a lesson in leaving something better than you found it," said Cynthia Henry, the chairwoman of the UA Board of Regents.
Henry and other leaders said Hamilton fundamentally changed UA. By taking a new leadership approach, Henry said he transformed a gloomy environment where enrollment was dipping, facilities were deteriorating and grants had dried up.
A 31-year military veteran, Hamilton didn't arrive with a doctorate degree or much experience in higher education. He admits he went into the job with a limited idea of what he would encounter and joked that regents needed courage to "pick someone who was summarily unqualified" for the position.
"No, I didn't know what I was in for," he said, "but it was something that it turned out I was prepared for."
At the end of his military career, Hamilton was in charge of U.S. Army recruiting. That global effort involved the oversight of about 12,000 employees and a $1 billion budget, he said. The mission of the UA system also is vast, covering a huge geographic area and offering everything from post-doctorate degrees to high-school equivalency tests.
He said his outsider's view, combined with a history of leading large organizations, was an asset in such a complex environment.
Sen. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, agrees. He was on the Board of Regents when Hamilton was hired and said it was clear immediately in interviews that he would be a contrast to the cerebral academic leadership to which UA had grown accustomed.
"We needed somebody who would move the university forward," Thomas said. "We needed that dynamic personality."
Hamilton said his military resume ended up being a benefit when it came time to lobby the Legislature for money, which was a key ingredient in reviving the system.
State assistance had been frozen for a decade when he came aboard, but Hamilton said conservative lawmakers "had an inclination to trust a general." He asked for an increase of nearly 10 percent his first year and got an immediate bump in funding even though oil was selling at the meager price of $9.57 per barrel.
He's been extremely successful at convincing lawmakers to fund UA in the years that followed, and today the system receives a state contribution that's twice as much as it was when he began.
Although Hamilton has sparred occasionally with the Legislature about money issues, he said he has little to complain about.
"The reality is the Legislature has treated us very well," he said.
By most accounts, the issue Hamilton is most associated with is the UA Scholars program, a $3.5 million annual scholarship program that gives a tuition waiver to Alaska students who graduate among the top of their class.
Hamilton said the success of the program isn't that it brings top students in the state to UA. Since the UA Scholars program was launched, the percentage of Alaska students who choose to remain in state for college has jumped from 40 percent to 63 percent. He thinks UA scholars, which creates ambassadors throughout Alaska, are a big reason why.
In the future, Hamilton thinks the associations those diverse students make at UA will help mend the urban-rural divide in Alaska.
"It brings together people at the state university people whose life experience is notably different than someone who's grown up in Anchorage, for example," he said.
Hamilton also is known for aligning UA's goals with the state's employment needs and working with the Alaska Department of Labor to anticipate trends. To address a projected shortage of health-care workers, UA emphasized nursing training this decade.
"He didn't just talk in visionary terms about learning he talked about specific programs," Henry said.
But Hamilton said his proudest accomplishment is one that's hardly recognized. Twice per year, UA has exhaustive "operational review" meetings that break down what each component of the university does, who works there and how much money they're spending.
He said the process hasn't necessarily made the UA system financially leaner but it has brought a greater awareness of what its various components are doing.
Hamilton's replacement will be Patrick Gamble, who has worked as the president and CEO of the Alaska Railroad for the past decade.
Gamble also has a military background as a retired four-star Air Force general. Twelve years after some questioned Hamilton's resume, there's been barely a ripple about Gamble's qualifications.
"I like the kind of recognition that apparently three decades of leadership and decision-making can be a valuable thing," Hamilton said.
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