Following the Money Print
Written by Dori Jones Yang   
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It’s a maze of statistics, multipliers and matrices, but one intrepid reporter dares to make sense of the UW’s economic impact on our region.

Like Indiana Jones, I was on a quest. I packed my trusty tools—digital recorder, notebook, name cards, parking stickers—in my Toyota hybrid SUV and headed off on the 16-mile trek to the University of Washington campus, up 405 and across the 520 bridge, braving rush-hour traffic with the ultimate commuter’s aid, KUOW. My grail: to unlock the secrets of just how the U Dub impacts our local economy. To achieve it, I needed to consult the experts.

Living deep in Husky territory, I am an outsider. That’s one reason I had been chosen—to bring fresh eyes to this age-old question. As a former Business Week reporter, I had interviewed UW experts. I had even taken evening classes in fiction writing. But my main exposure to the campus was, like that of Jane Q. Public, to attend lectures at Kane Hall, view exhibits at the Burke and marvel at the wild profusion of cherry blossoms in the Quad each April. This is how most local residents see the UW—as a cultural resource, a sports powerhouse and a center of learning that attracts brilliant people to Seattle, many of them quoted on the evening news.

ImageThe day I began my expedition, purple flags fluttered along the streets near campus, spelling out its many impacts: culture, health, education, environment, economy. I scribbled notes at every stoplight. It brought back the thrill of my own student days, the cool new stuff to learn behind every classroom door.

The influence of the University is far broader than economic—that’s the message I got from the provost herself. I started at the top—the third floor of Gerberding Hall. Phyllis Wise greeted me with a warm smile, a firm handshake and a scientist’s immediate focus on hard data. I felt windblown and flustered compared to her calm manner, pearl necklace and perfectly coiffed black hair. She got straight to the point.

“Cities that are the homes of major research universities are completely different,” she told me. And she should know, since she’s taught physiology in Baltimore; Lexington, Ky.; and Davis, Calif.

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Provost Phyllis Wise. Photo by Mary Levin.
Having a successful, highly respected research university “puts a whole different flavor in the city. It has a sense of youth because the students are young, naïve, dreaming, planning, thinking that they can be anything.” Out of the 300,000 living UW alumni, about 65 percent are still in the region, which has a tremendous impact on the intellectual power of the community. It is no accident, she notes, that many Seattle companies, such as Costco, REI, Amazon and Starbucks, are innovative in their business approach. More than 5,000 alumni work for Boeing and more than 1,000 for Microsoft.

“Discovery is what we’re all about. It’s thinking, risking, taking avenues that people haven’t even thought about before, instead of doing it the same old way.”

The shoals of economic impact, though, are terra incognita for most academics. “Thirty years ago, the way you measured your success was by the number of manuscripts your faculty and students published in peer-reviewed, highly respected journals,” she said, admitting to belonging to that generation. “Now, it’s being measured not only by that but by the number of patents, licensing and small companies that are started.”