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Columns Q&A: Phyllis Wise

A graduate of SwarthmoreCollege and the University of Michigan, Provost Phyllis Wise took over the UW’s No. 2 leadership position in August. She came to the UW from the University of California, Davis, where she was dean of the College of Biological Sciences. Her groundbreaking research into human hormones has won her many honors, including a cover story in Parade magazine that called her one of America’s “quiet heroes.”

Can you give us a quick definition of your job?

I am the chief academic officer and the chief financial officer, which means that I have a major role in molding how we use funds, so that the academic programs and the financial resources are part of the same fabric.

Provosts often have to play the “bad cop” role to the president’s “good cop.” You are the one who has to say, “Sorry, there’s no money,” or “Sorry, it doesn’t fit into our strategic plan.”

I hope that we can be even more creative and entrepreneurial than we are now. I think with the right kind of interdisciplinary and collaborative organization, we will say “yes” more often and “no” fewer times.

You have been here for two months. What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about the University of Washington?

I thought, “You have got to have some skeletons somewhere.” I haven’t found any and I haven’t even found the closet that you keep them in! This is a spectacular place. And what is most impressive is that, although you know that you are pretty darn good, you actually want to be better. The sense is that with good leadership—which puts very high expectations on Mark Emmert and me—the sky’s the limit.

Aren’t there turf wars here that hold you back?

I just went to a deans’ retreat. They talked, not as a single voice but certainly not in 18 voices, about working with each other and how two, three or four schools can benefit at once. I hesitate to say, after two months, that everything is peachy keen here, but I think that we are certainly on the right path. We are not at “Go,” not at the start in a Monopoly game.

We’ve not arrived at Marvin Gardens or Park Place yet, but we are way beyond Baltic Avenue.

Yes, absolutely. What a wonderful analogy.

One of the big parts of your job is overseeing the research enterprise. This year we almost hit $1 billion in sponsored research. Why is this so important?

Because it is one metric by which we measure the quality and the spectrum of our research. It is one way by which our colleagues assess our university. I should add that the state does not support all of the needs in higher education, so the research enterprise is another way to bring resources to the University.

The research money is also a way to boost the state’s economy.

Every grant that we get provides, not only money, but it leads to an incredible number of jobs, to new companies, to a better quality of life for the citizens of Washington. I think there are 7,600 full-time jobs at the University funded by research. Studies show it generates 33,000 jobs statewide.

You’ve appointed a committee to look at the undergraduate experience. Why now?

I think it is important for universities to look at the way we teach undergraduates at least every five or 10 years. It’s critical that we wrap our arms around the whole learning experience and say “OK, are we taking advantage of every single moment in the students’ lives? Are we preparing students to be leaders in the global environment? Are we transforming their lives?”

And the answer right now would probably be no?

Right. Are we teaching them in the dorms? Are we teaching them when they are in the HUB? Are we being creative about our classroom learning? Is it interactive? Is it a deep learning experience? The science of education is changing very, very rapidly. In some of our lecture halls each student has a clicker. The faculty member polls the class and is able to tell right away whether the point he or she made is totally clear. We didn’t have this sort of thing 10 years ago.

You went to Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts college, so your undergrad experience was different.

I don’t think we can strive to be Swarthmore just 10 times larger. On the other hand, I think that we can take some ideas of how they provide a quality experience and translate that into part of what we provide our students. It is important to have experiences with small classrooms. It is important for students to see their faculty members at teas and not just at the lecture podium. At Swarthmore, we used to go over to faculty homes on Sunday afternoons and get to know them in a different environment.

I think they still do it there.

Yes, I believe so. What I learned at Swarthmore is to learn for the sake of learning, not to be competing with the person who is sitting next to you. It is sometimes difficult to get this across to students. I am not a Quaker, however I have an incredible respect for the way Quakers believe, that you look inward for what you strive to be. You owe it to yourself to try and be better.

After Swarthmore you went to the University of Michigan, where you started your research in human hormones, especially estrogen. What have you found out?

A hundred years ago, the life span of men and women was roughly 50 years, so most women never had a long, postmenopausal period in their lives. What we are realizing now is that estrogens are more than just reproductive hormones; they play a large role in our overall well-being. They affect the heart, the immune system, brain, bones, metabolism, etc. What we are studying is how they affect the brain in areas that are important in learning and memory. Estrogens play an important protective role in making the brain function properly.

Do you miss research?

I have brought a research grant with me. I’m grounded in science and I never want to get completely away from the research and teaching. But I don’t ever want to consider myself a total administrator. At the same time, as provost, I am eager to learn about the arts and humanities and social sciences.

I hear that you love to cook.

I have far too many recipe books.

If you were having Mark and DeLaine Emmert over for dinner, what would you make?

I would serve them a Chinese dinner. I love doing it course by course. The Chinese tradition is that you serve as many courses as you have people at the table. And so if you have eight people over, I would try and serve them eight courses: with eight different combinations of vegetables or different meats and fish.

Do ever you get tired of headline writers making puns with your last name?

As long as you don’t call me “Wise Guy,” it’s OK.

Interview by Columns Editor Tom Griffin