Let's Talk: UW President Begins Conversation of the Century

President Richard L. McCormick challenged all members of the University of Washington community Oct. 5 to participate in a yearlong conversation about the future of the UW.

The President called for a "clear, bright, ambitious picture" of what the UW will be in the 21st century. "Our future has the potential to be even greater than our past," he said in his annual address.

He told the assembly he was not looking for "a single vision statement to which we would all subscribe and which might be perceived as a straitjacket."

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Instead he envisioned a series of documents, such as UW departments' own strategic plans, proposals from interdisciplinary groups, and a set of statements the UW would craft for external constituencies, including legislators, alumni and prospective donors.

McCormick was adamant that all voices in the UW community be heard in this conversation. "It must include external as well as internal constituencies. We want to invite everyone into this look at the future, listen hard to what they say, and give them some ownership of the results," he declared.

This conversation will take many forms, he explained. Some possible avenues include focus groups, a series of guest speakers, forums organized within and across departments, and programs for the larger community.

"I will propose a list of events to launch the conversation. Everyone is invited to add to the list," he said. To keep the conversation focused, the President offered the following guidelines:

  • It should be based on the UW's historic missions of teaching, research, and service.

  • It should be about this University, not a generic public research university, and should reflect the UW's strengths, geographic location and comparative advantages.

  • It should connect the UW to the larger world-addressing global human needs in areas where the University has expertise and where it can make a difference.

The President praised the current efforts the UW community is making toward change. He noted that since his arrival in 1995, he has seen a massive integration of the core missions of teaching, research and service. He also cited a greater outward orientation toward communities surrounding the UW.

In pointing out the UW's strengths, he listed several new initiatives that are examples of what he hopes will come out of the yearlong conversation:

  • The John Stanford International School, a dream of the late Seattle School District superintendent, that will give K-5 students an international education with a strong emphasis on technology. The UW will help design the curricula, connect the school to high-speed Internet lines and use it as a laboratory for its own students and researchers.

  • The UW Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and its current transformation. A year from now it will have a new name-the Information School of the University of Washington. It will offer bachelor's and Ph.D. degrees and a revised master's degree program.

  • A new UW Arts Initiative by faculty in the visual arts, dance, drama and music that will culminate in a Summer Arts Festival next year. "The festival will bring together UW faculty and students, outstanding visiting professionals, and K-12 teachers in a broad range of performances, exhibitions, classes and workshops," he said.

These examples should inspire other initiatives that might come out of the conversation, the President explained.

Another goal for McCormick is better communication with external groups, such as alumni and donors. "Where there's excellence at the UW, it is usually because of a combination of sources of support, including private gifts. One of my highest hopes for our conversation about the future is that it will position the UW to communicate even more effectively," he said.

Noting that one center of excellence is in computer science, he announced that Bill and Melinda Gates have donated $3 million for two endowed chairs in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. "No family in the history of the UW has been more generous or farsighted in its support than the Gates family," he said. This brings to $47 million the University's total gifts from Bill and Melinda Gates.

Few predicted the impact of computer science 50 years ago. "Talking about the future is not easy. It can be scary. It can be difficult to get our arms around, especially in a University community as large and varied as ours," he admitted. "I believe, however, that here at the UW a willingness to look to the future represents our best chance to understand our special strengths and to identify areas where we can be excellent and where we can make a difference."

Alumni are invited to join this UW conversation. Watch for details in future issues of Columns and for announcements posted to the "Future Conversations" web site.

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