An Artist's Next Creative Work: Leading a College of Liberal Arts

U. of Alaska Fairbanks

Todd Sherman
October 29, 2012

Todd Sherman is a talented artist, but he had better be good at putting out fires, too. At the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, he has just become the sixth dean of liberal arts, permanent or interim, in five years.

And now is not the time for any university to drop the reins for long. "The economic situation throughout the country—the world, really—affects us all," he says from his office.

That is particularly true in a state that depends heavily on oil prices, ever volatile. It turns out, though, that the visual-artist-turned-dean has a track record when it comes to dousing flames on campus. In the early 1970s, he advanced to a bachelor's degree in art by working in the university's firehouse, first as a firefighter, then an engineer, then a captain.

Now 57, he has been a professional artist, working in drawing, painting, sculpture, and printmaking, for over three decades, with dozens of solo shows and appearances in well over 100 juried and invitational exhibitions. Two of his wildlife portraits are on exhibit at the Anchorage Museum's biennial juried show for Alaskan artists. Proudly an Alaskan since before it became a state, in 1959, he notes that his deep roots there help to explain his latest focus of his art: "trophic cascades," the rippling interdependency in natural systems, such as among wolves, snowshoe hares, and the other animals that wolves hunt, and the vegetation that sustains the prey.

He taught art on the Fairbanks campus as an adjunct professor from 1986 to 1991, all the time working another job or two. He became a full-time faculty member in 1992, was the chair of the art department for nine years, and along the way earned a master's degree from the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

He began to imagine taking on other administrative roles. "The trajectory I've had has been quite organic," he says. "It just happened this way as I got more into it."

Two years ago, he sought the deanship when it was offered as an interim position. He did not win it but was among three finalists.

Before and since, "it's been a turnover situation, for a variety of reasons," Mr. Sherman diplomatically notes. When a permanent appointee left abruptly in April, and the position opened again on an interim basis, Mr. Sherman once more threw his hat into the ring.

Senior administrators decided that their appointee would be permanent, and that it would be Mr. Sherman. Susan Henrichs, the provost, said that while the rapid turnover had been due to bad luck rather than any "underlying severe problem," she believes that Mr. Sherman offers stability. She welcomes in particular his ties to local high schools through a summer art camp he runs—a welcome attribute given how hard the university must battle to persuade local students to stay in the state.

He is glad for both decisions: "With interims, the mind-set among faculty can be, 'We can wait this person out.'" So far, though, his liberal-arts colleagues are welcoming him, describing him as well liked, humorous, calm under pressure, and approachable. "It's too soon to tell very much, but initial reaction has been very positive," says David Henry, an assistant professor of foreign languages and literature who is also a representative on the Faculty Senate.

Mr. Sherman has emphasized listening and collaborating, after some predecessors "ran into trouble" attempting top-down approaches, says Mr. Henry. Those "didn't fit well at a university that takes shared governance as one of its strengths."

With oil prices dicey and the university's budget under pressure, Mr. Sherman knows he will have to make unpopular calls. "There lies a good amount of decision making and stress, I would imagine," he says. Optimistic, he adds: "Consensus may be a dream, but hopefully we can agree on general directions." He says that after nine years heading the art department, he is confident of his ability to be a dean and is buoyed by his colleagues' belief in him, despite his unusual career path.

Being an artist may help pave the way, he says: "We always have to figure things out in a creative fashion. We have to use innovation."