At the 2013 annual address, I proposed a vision for the future of the University of Washington. It’s a vision derived from countless conversations over the past two years with faculty, staff, students, the Board of Regents, supporters and many others in the UW community.
It’s a vision that was seeded when the opportunity first arose to come here. I immediately knew UW was special. I knew we could do things that are truly exceptional, things that could not be done anywhere else in the world. From the beginning, I saw:
• intellectual excellence that puts the UW at the very top—in passion, commitment, teaching, and research;
• excellence in specific domains that would truly impact the world—such as genome science, big data, global health, and more;
• innovation and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries with a goal of applying research and knowledge to big problems, affecting countless people and societies;
• a distinctive location, unlike anywhere else in the world. UW has a cultural worldview that looks in every direction: east, west, north, south. It is located in a community that believes in looking beyond geographic and intellectual borders, beyond barriers both real and perceived.
That was my impression before I arrived and the foundation for why I came here a little more than two years ago. I have now seen firsthand the extraordinary work going on here. The excellence of the UW and the capacity for positive, lasting, transformative impact was even greater than I could have possibly imagined.
We are now emerging from some of the most difficult economic years UW has ever faced. It has been my first and foremost priority to address the financial challenges facing the UW, and it continues to be. But I believe we’ve turned a corner. Now it is time for us to chart a course for our future.
As a great public university, our responsibility goes well beyond simply sustaining our operations. We need to do more and we know it. In order to fulfill our purpose for being, it is both our obligation and an opportunity to expand our offerings and our research to reflect the change occurring in the world around us. We need to lead.
With that in mind, I propose four foundations to match the four columns in the campus’ Sylvan Grove that replicate the front of the very first UW building in 1861. The original columns were the literal foundation upon which the University was built, and they call us forward. I want to offer four foundations—or 21st-century columns—that I believe capture the essence of who and what UW needs to be as we move into the next 150 years. This vision is a product of all of us: the University of Washington needs to be Accessible, Experimental, Global, and Enterprising.
As a public research university, Accessible means that we are inclusive in the broadest sense. We must provide resources to bring prepared, capable and ambitious students to campus to realize their full potential. We must ensure that the Husky Promise and other scholarships and grants are available to make our campus accessible to those who qualify to come here in every way, and simply need financial assistance.
Accessible also means access to us for people beyond our campus, and making our ideas, knowledge and inventions available to people wherever they are. The UW’s first Online Degree Completion program makes it possible for place-bound and time-bound students with 70 transferable college credits to enroll and finish their degree online in Early Childhood Education. We must embrace other online opportunities that do not sacrifice quality.
Accessible also means bringing in outside expertise to enhance research. The Institute for Protein Design has infused its campus research with more than 300,000 people around the world who are playing Foldit, a revolutionary free online game to help our scientists predict the folds of unsolved proteins and design new proteins necessary to cure diseases. We can crowdsource to enrich our ideas.
The bottom line is people have unique needs, interests, and capabilities. We have content and capacity to offer transformative experiences, sometimes on campus and sometimes off. We don’t have the luxury to leave anyone out. We must foreground the public in our mission of a public university.
Second, we must be Experimental. This requires relentless curiosity and courage for everyone affiliated with UW, to move forward with ideas that might lead to a great invention, a cure for cancer or a better way of teaching the myriad things our students need to be educated citizens in the 21st century.
For example, our Genome Sciences and Pathology departments, along with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, recently launched Precision Medicine based on a simple, but profound insight: cancer treatments succeed with some individuals, but fail with others. The researchers are exploring what can happen when the focus for treatment is shifted from where cancer occurs in the body, such as the brain, to an individual’s genetic makeup and molecular structure, relating diagnosis and treatment to individual genes, their mutations and functions. It’s trial and error. It’s experimental.
We are implementing an experimental approach in our teaching, too. Last quarter, 120,000 people from 200 countries enrolled in our Communication Department’s Massive Open Online Course on public speaking. They watched lectures, analyzed presentations, engaged in robust discussion groups in several languages, and recorded and evaluated each other’s speeches. Learning to communicate effectively is a building block of modern society, and many benefitted from the class.
At this great university, we must continue to be experimental in our classrooms, research labs, libraries, and offices. We must cultivate a culture that makes room for failure and rewards success. We have to dare every day to try to make the world a better place.
Third, we must be Global. At convocation this year, I told the incoming freshmen that we are all international students. We are all international faculty and staff, too.
For example, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is conducting research in 25 countries to find what works in preventing and treating diseases. The IHME is also measuring the impact of disease treatment in specific locations, such as the effectiveness of vaccination programs in Uganda—where someone dies from meningitis every hour. They are working with locals to find solutions to improve the lives of their citizens.
Our worldview needs to be big enough to find answers to the world’s great challenges and to bring students from all over to help us find them. We must engage across cultures, languages, borders, challenges, histories, and visions for the future.
At our UW Study Center in León, Spain, students from across campus get an amazing chance to study abroad. Yet the León Center aspires to more than simply having students show up, stay a while, take in the local culture, and then depart. Rather, we actively seek to engage, to be an important resource for the city and region. For example, our studio art program auctions off student work at the end of the quarter, and donates the profits to charity. Other UW students taught story-telling workshops to León grade schoolers last spring. That kind of engagement is central. The UW does not stand apart from the world. We are part of it.
We all know that intellectual borders matter less and less in the great research and teaching we do. We know that we gain so much more from an interdisciplinary approach. But we also need students with global and comparative perspectives and an appreciation for cultures, languages and ideas, to address the grand global challenges we face.
Finally, we must be Enterprising. This column speaks to the essence of how we pursue our vision: with emotional and intellectual intensity, ambition, urgency, and a resolve to succeed. Nothing can stop us. Our drive will be unsurpassed.
Here’s a concrete instance: UW Transportation leaders and staff have renewed their effforts to make a positive lasting impression on UW visitors. Managers scheduled an all-staff retreat to develop a plan to provide the best experience possible for all who utilize transportation facilities. You may have noticed parking employees wearing uniforms and coming out of booths to greet visitors, or the welcoming signs at garage entry points. They are making this happen. That’s enterprising.
Such an entrepreneurial spirit is typical of Washington. Airplanes, neighborhood coffee shops, software for every computer, five-pound jars of mayonnaise, ordering anything online, kidney dialysis all have roots here. For UW, the economic challenges have been great in recent years, but we have risen to the occasion. Enterprising is what allows us to exceed our goals. At UW, we must instill the concept of enterprise into every classroom, residence hall, lab and campus facility for faculty, staff and students. We must be ambitious. There is no mountain too high for us to climb.
To conclude, this will involve everyone no matter their position or relationship to the university. We can’t do it alone.
Accessible. Experimental. Global. Enterprising.
I invite all of Husky Nation to embrace these foundations as our vision—a vision that I believe is deeply rooted in all of us—to ensure every student will come out of the UW different from when they arrived. This is our vision, and we will be relentless in pursuing it.
I came here because I was inspired by what I saw and knew about UW. Our challenges are great but we are equal to the moment. Together, we will lead into the next 150 years.
Michael K. Young, President