June 2005 -

Stories Yet to Unfold

As of mid-June, more than 12,000 University of Washington students will have earned degrees during the past academic year. I will have the pleasure of greeting many of these graduates at commencement ceremonies on June 10 (Tacoma), 11 (Seattle) and 12 (Bothell). For me, those commencements—my first since returning as President—will be powerful reminders of my own years at the UW 30 years ago.

President Mark Emmert. Photo by Mary LevinMuch has changed in those 30 years. In 1975, there was only one UW campus and one University-wide commencement ceremony. About 8,200 students earned degrees that year. Well below my own personal radar screen, our undergraduate program in computer science was just getting started (as was Microsoft, down in New Mexico). Bioengineering (a term coined, and a field virtually created, by UW alumnus and inventor Wayne Quinton, ’58) was a fledgling graduate program. And, on the other side of the ledger, some fields in which my classmates earned degrees no longer exist here.

Even fields that sound the same—like my own, political science—are different today in both content and educational approach. The UW has truly pioneered a reorientation of undergraduate learning. Increasingly, a UW education consists of active, engaged, hands-on inquiry, not passive absorption of professorial knowledge. Students can join faculty members in research, can make internships and community service an integral part of their academic work, can learn collaboratively on team projects, and can explore the same kinds of interdisciplinary questions that characterize so much UW research. These kinds of opportunities were rare in my own undergraduate days.

And yet, for all that has changed, the essence of what happens here remains the same. Students arrive at the UW from all over the state, the nation and the world. They bring a tremendous variety of backgrounds, talents and interests. With the openness of youth, they begin to educate each other. Building on all that, the University of Washington gives them a solid grounding in general knowledge, an in-depth, state-of-the-art experience in their chosen discipline (or disciplines, depending on their ambition), and the tools with which to continue learning all their lives.

Which young man or woman marching into Husky Stadium on June 11 will be seen years from now, as a major statesman or artist or scientific genius.For all students, these years are transformative. They certainly were for me. But even at commencement, the end point of that transformation is still far down the road. We didn’t know, in 1975, that my classmate Linda Buck would become a Nobel Laureate. When Jack Lenor Larsen, this year’s Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, graduated in 1949, how many people foresaw that he would dominate international textile design in the second half of the 20th century? And who would have imagined, when Dan Evans earned his civil engineering degrees in 1948 and 1949, the extraordinary career in public service that would follow—and that still continues?

Commencement is a wonderful celebration of what students have achieved. But its real excitement lies in the anticipation of stories yet to unfold—more than 12,000 of them, this year. What will grow out of the lessons and experiences these students carry away? What will they build on the foundations the UW has given them? How will the world change because this particular cadre of students has spent a short but crucial moment at the University of Washington? Which young man or woman marching into Husky Stadium on June 11 will be seen, years from now, as a major statesman or artist or scientific genius?

Commencement highlights the drama and mystery of education. All of us, as UW alumni and faculty and staff, are involved in that ongoing drama. It follows a course that cannot be predicted and that ends only when the final curtain comes down. For the University, the story is essentially endless—and endlessly fascinating.

Mark Emmert, '75