THE VIEW FROM THE TOP
President Gerberding atop the roof of the new Chemistry Building wing. Photo by Mary Levin.
Early December, 1978: Frigid weather gripped the Midwest. Chicago's temperature was hovering below zero, as the plane carrying University of Washington Regent Gordon Culp arrived at O'Hare Field.
Culp was chairman of the search committee seeking the next president of the UW. For Culp, the undertaking was not just a routine search, it had become almost a crusade. A respected lawyer and civic leader, Culp has a passion for higher education.
He met with William P. Gerberding, chancellor of the University of Illinois campus at Urbana-Champaign, who'd come to Chicago to answer a few questions about the candidates under consideration. For hours they sat in the United Airlines' Red Carpet Lounge-- Gerberding answering questions, sharing his knowledge about acquaintances who were on Culp's candidate list.
"Of course, I can't be a candidate," said Gerberding. "I've only been at the University of Illinois for 11 months." Culp nodded: He repeated he merely wanted a perspective on the others under consideration.
A few weeks later, Culp telephoned from Seattle to put a direct question to Gerberding: Will you be a candidate for the UW job?
After a pause, Gerberding said yes.
LARSEN: So you went to Seattle to be formally interviewed?
GERBERDING: I came out here in March, right around St. Patrick's Day and on the 13th of April they offered me the job. And I snapped at it.
LARSEN: Was that the first time you'd ever been on the UW campus?
GERBERDING: In the spring of '79, that's correct.
LARSEN: What memory do you have of that first stroll on the campus?
GERBERDING: I was struck by its beauty. I had never seen it, despite living on the West Coast all those years. It is a gorgeous campus. I think probably the most beautiful campus in America, at least for a public university. And I remember a sense of exhilaration walking around that campus. It seemed perfect for me ... I liked the spirit of it, the mood of it.
LARSEN: At the time you first came here, you mentioned that the UW had the "possibility" of becoming one of the three top public universities in the nation. What caused you to say that then and -- with some time now having passed -- do you feel good about the UW's advancement?
GERBERDING: I feel very good about the advance. We could get there a lot faster if we stopped having these budgetary crises. But if we figure out how to live in the post-Initiative 601 world, and have adequate funding, I think this university will get there. It is on its way.
LARSEN: Quality just doesn't happen at an institution. What are the elements or dynamics that help create what you describe as the edge of excellence?
GERBERDING: It takes a great faculty. That's the sine qua non. If you don't have a great faculty, you're just not in that game. So you have to develop or be in the process of developing a great faculty.
Then you need students that challenge that faculty. And this is particularly true for graduate and professional student cadres: that is a national market. And you need the very best graduate students to challenge and work with the best faculty.
The undergraduate student population is less obviously central to the quality of the faculty, but if you had a mediocre student population, it would quickly put the faculty to sleep. They would lose interest in undergraduate education, and you would have a bigger problem on your hands than you have in the normal course of events where you have to keep stressing the importance of undergraduate education to keep the faculty interested. A lot of them are just naturally interested, some of them are not so. Fortunately, we have fine undergraduate students and they have access to a very high quality education here.
By the way, between the mid-80s and today, applications for our graduate school are up something like 90 percent. What that says is that, in addition to the fact that people like to come to Seattle, bright undergraduates who wish to pursue an academic or professional degree are told by their professors what schools they ought to apply to, where the real action is. I know that we're on the grapevine out there too. And -- boy! -- are we looking good on that scale.
President Gerberding in 1990. Photo by David Freeman.
A discouraged law school dean mourned, "I'm being asked to destroy the place."
"We are apparently going to be required to dismember the University of Washington," a gloomy President Gerberding told a campus audience.
"Our students are totally demoralized. ... They're shot," sighed Robert Hutton, chair of the UW's kinesiology department.
Those were some of the distraught voices and pain-filled messages of the early '80s as a severe economic recession struck the state of Washington. In Olympia, legislators cut programs wherever they could, but, proportionately, higher education took the biggest hits.
When another round of budget cuts was ordered for the UW, Gerberding, in only his third year in office, even talked about temporary shutdowns of the UW to save money. In the darkness of the time, he worried aloud how long it might take for the "stunned and wounded institution" to get back on the road to recovery.
LARSEN: When you arrived on the Seattle campus in 1979, Dixy Lee Ray was governor. She said some downright unfriendly things about the UW. And soon the state was to take a severe economic nose dive. What are your recollections of those times ... and how did they affect your outlook?
GERBERDING: Well, Dixy was not friendly to the University and the reasons for that are no doubt complex. I wouldn't try to understand that. Then we had the terrible recession and there were times when, as I said at the time, I feared that it would be a long time before we could recover. There were some very, very hurtful cuts.
It was very, very painful. We lost about 10 percent of our budget over those several years. And we cut out lots of programs ... a couple of departments -- kinesiology and nutritional sciences come to mind. But everything was scaled way back and it was a grim time. Hundreds of jobs were lost -- faculty and staff.
So it was a down time and morale was low.
But the core quality of the institution was not damaged. And, through the combined efforts of some friendly people in the media, some people in the business community, and legislators on both sides of the aisle, we received remarkably good support from the mid-80s to the early '90s. And that's been indispensable to us.
LARSEN: During the travail of the early 1980s -- and the mid '80s -- the UW was experiencing what many believed was a critical "brain drain" -- loss of key, quality faculty. How did you react to that?
GERBERDING: Well, I had -- in the opinion of some people -- harped far too much on the central importance of faculty salaries. I've always put that at the top of our priorities. And I viewed that as the primary means of finding and retaining faculty.
The reason we stopped losing faculty was very, very simple. It was an influx of money into the University. I think it was a well-managed influx, going to the faculty and support levels.
And then in the later '80s also [the money influx was] into capital projects that have been unbelievably inspiring to that faculty. No question, the capital-budget support the UW has had in recent years has been crucial.
LARSEN: During the decline that we experienced in the '80s, the only good news we had were some of the federal research grants, particularly in health sciences coming in with Sen. Warren Magnuson's programs.
GERBERDING: Right, and that remains true to this day. It's just astonishing how competitive this University is. Our sponsored research -- 85 percent of it federal -- in the last fiscal year was $460 million. And our state support for the whole instructional program at the University was much, much less than that. Less than $330 million.
LARSEN: Did you ever experience concern that the presence of those federal dollars might act as a disincentive to state legislators?
GERBERDING: Yes, it bothers me. We try to explain all the time that they're not interchangeable. There is some utility from our instructional standpoint in having all that federally sponsored research going on. But the feds aren't giving us money to train undergraduates or to provide law school education or anything like that. Their money is targeted towards medical science and other kinds of research.
Within the Washington State Legislature, with its mix of people of all ideologies from all parts of the state, the UW and its President have enjoyed or suffered mixed reviews. During these 16 years, one legislator characterized the UW's approach as "terribly, terribly heavy-handed." But at the same time, another lawmaker praised Gerberding, stating, "I found him very open, very helpful and very candid. He has a strong relationship with the Legislature."
LARSEN: What reflections do you have -- both good and bad -- in dealing with the Washington State Legislature?
GERBERDING: I have mostly good things to say about the Legislature. We have had a few legislators who have taken critical and even negative views of higher education. But for the most part, we have had very supportive legislators and some persons ... who fit both descriptions.
I think the fact that I spent a couple years on Capitol Hill as a Congressional intern and that I had this pro-legislative bias has probably served me well. I really like legislatures. And I like legislators. In fact, some people think that I'm too sympathetic to their plight, you know.
They're down there trying to balance budgets and they're trying to beat off all these grasping constituents and interest groups like universities. They have a terribly tough job.
LARSEN: But some legislators -- and you can probably tick off some names in your mind -- have viewed you and your institution as elitist in nature. Your comment?
GERBERDING: Well, it depends on what the word "elitist" means.
Beneath any particular debate about funding lies, at some level, the question whether you ought to do less and do it better, or whether you ought to do more and do it less well. As the population is expanding, that tension between quality and access is always going to be there. The University of Washington is always going to be in there emphasizing quality -- and that's going to get us in trouble with some people. We're going to be charged with being elitist because we're not sufficiently interested in access questions.
Our response to that, of course, has been the branch campuses and the evening degree program. If being elitist means that we have emphasized the quality side of the argument, then that's accurate. If it has an exclusively pejorative connotation, suggesting that we're only interested in certain kinds of people and that our sense of public purpose and public responsibility is very narrow, then I would vigorously dispute that.
LARSEN: At the outset you were opposed to the proposition of branch campuses. You were at least skeptical -- right?
GERBERDING: You're right. I was late to that party.
LARSEN: Want to explain your skepticism and your reflections on it today?
GERBERDING: My position for the first six or seven years that I was here was that the state was underfunding higher education, and that the last thing the state needed was more higher education institutions. There was talk at one time about a seventh four-year institution. Then that died away and the branch campus idea emerged.
The impulse behind that talk, of course, has always been that the population is expanding and we are underserving the population in terms of the number of graduates of four-year institutions. We're way down the list among states in that respect.
LARSEN: There was also focus on the growing number of place-bound students, was there not?
GERBERDING: That became part of the problem as the Higher Education Coordinating Board saw it. Well, a couple of things happened to me on the way to ending this continuing resistance. First of all, my regents caught on faster than I did that the tide had shifted and that the access side of the argument was getting a much longer and better hearing than the quality side. Secondly, and not unrelatedly, it became clear to me that the political consequences of our standing aloof from this would be very disadvantageous for the University.
Some quite candid conversations with friendly legislators persuaded me of that. Then, of course, beyond that, there was a time there in the '80s where the Puget Sound area was one of the most rapidly growing areas in the United States. So, over time, reason, politics, regental influence prevailed.
LARSEN: How do you think the branch campuses are serving now, and what is your estimate of their future? Do you think that they represent any kind of threat of dilution of the overall financing of the University?
GERBERDING: Let me answer the second part first. There is no question that the answer to that is no. The branch campuses have been a net political asset to us. They have collected a whole roster of people who have a vital, keen and direct interest in us.
As to how they're doing, again I would make a distinction. The Tacoma branch got off to a faster start in terms of enrollment and community support and political support. And it remains the stronger of the two in those respects. Their capital budget is in place. We know where that campus is going to be. We'll probably move ahead in construction during the next biennium. The enrollment figures have continued to stay ahead of the other branch campus, and there's an enormous amount of local support. I don't know whether it's generally known, but there's a million-dollar endowment in place down there. That was raised by the local business community in support of the branch campus. That's a lot of money to raise on a kind of grassroots basis.
The situation at the Bothell branch is much more complicated. There remains a dispute about where the campus will be built, though that may have settled down now. There isn't a historic, coherent, cohesive community right there in support of it. It's the suburban branch campus. And it's in a place that the demographers decided was the best point between Everett and Bellevue to serve the population further down the road. Enrollments haven't gone up as fast, but we have very good leadership out there. When we get past the initial capital-budget siting issues, I think it will take off. The instructional quality is excellent.
LARSEN: In 1979, you set out a number of objectives, and one of them was bringing minorities more into the mainstream, in faculty and campus and students and education. How do you feel about that? Do you think you've delivered on that promise?
GERBERDING: Partially. It's a tough issue. Just as the position and prospects of minorities in the broader society is a very complex and tricky and difficult issue, so it is in academia. The student population has perhaps not increased all that much but we're having more success with it. We're having higher graduation rates and our EOP program, I think, is a model for such efforts across the country. We're better at that than we used to be.
LARSEN: There's been some criticism that you were not one who went out and mingled a great deal with the students or that you were readily accessible to students. If you were to do it all over again, would you do anything different in that regard?
GERBERDING: I think maybe I would do it differently in the sense that I might establish some regular hours when I was available to students somewhere other than in my office. Just to see more of them and to lay to rest some of this criticism. So I might do it slightly differently.
But this is a pretty demanding job. There are only seven days in the week, and there are only so many hours in the day. I don't know what I would decide not to do if I decided to do that. But in terms of the first part of your question, I deny that I'm not accessible.
In fact, my secretary can tell you that I am accessible and I rarely turn down a request to be seen by a student or anybody else. So I am accessible. But it's probably accurate to say that I haven't mingled as much with students as I might have.
I mingle with students a lot more than is known. I appear at dormitories and fraternities and sororities and I have students in my home with some considerable regularity. And I see students around and about various places, athletes and others. But this is a big place and there are lots of students who either have never seen me or certainly don't feel they have any contact with me. I think it's a problem that goes with the job. Maybe I didn't handle it as well as I might have.
LARSEN: Are you kind of weary at this stage of your life, having served through these battles and wars? You've talked about the casualties among university presidents in recent years -- retirements, departures. Harvard's president is gone on leave as a result of fatigue.
GERBERDING: The honest answer to that question is that I am tired. I'm healthy. I hope I'll have a long and vigorous life. I will, if I retain my health, because I feel fine. But it is wearying.
LARSEN: You're known to be an insomniac. That's been reported and discussed. Is that part of your nature or is that related to the job you've had?
GERBERDING: I'm sure it's some of both. But it is interesting that when I get away from here for a while, I sleep better. So it's apparently not entirely my makeup. So I'm prone to sleeplessness and light sleeping. That's a problem, but it's acute when we're in the middle of a crisis like we are now.
LARSEN: Some of your reflections, Bill, on some of your major accomplishments as president.
GERBERDING: I think the fact that the University got through the very difficult times in the 1980s in reasonably good shape is something that I'm most proud of. I'm hoping to be able to do it one more time because we've reached the same level of crisis this time around. But this is a more fractious situation, and I'm not sure we'll be able to pull it off with as little damage as we did in the '80s.
I'm proud of the increased emphasis on undergraduate education that we have pushed very hard for the last seven or eight years.
Certainly the capital budget has been magnificent and I had something to do with persuading the Legislature to provide those funds. This campus is going to be more urban and more compacted because of all these new science and technology buildings. But its beauty will not be attenuated because we've been very careful to ensure that the extraordinary beauty of this campus is maintained and, in many ways, even enhanced. So I'm proud both of the buildings and of the aesthetic, architectural dimension.
I suppose the thing I'm most likely to be remembered for is the increase in private support, which has been quite dramatic and which we've worked hard at. I think it was an essential new aspect of the University's life.
President William P.Gerberding and Ruth Gerberding. Photo by Mary Levin.
A record number of luncheon tables were wedged into the Husky Union Building that November day, 1989, and some 400 people -- a Who's-Who of civic and corporate leaders -- milled, shoulder-to-shoulder, to find their places.
Later they listened to President Gerberding make the first public announcement that the Campaign for Washington had begun.
It would be the first of its kind for the institution -- an effort to raise $250 million in contributions from the private sector.
"Ambitious as hell," murmured a businessman in the crowd. Many major universities -- Harvard, UCLA, Michigan -- had a tradition of private gift-giving. But the UW had never attempted anything like this, on a scale so great.
Ambitious as hell, true. Particularly considering that the UW was barely recovering from the state budget agonies of the early '80s.
But, said Gerberding, "We have a truly wonderful organization and many, many people who care deeply about the University of Washington."
LARSEN: Give us your reflections on fund-raising. The results were dramatically better than had been expected, were they not?
GERBERDING: They were. I learned about fund-raising in my early days. UCLA had one of the most advanced development or fund-raising programs among public universities at that time. Then I went to Illinois for a year and a half and they had a fairly well-developed program.
When I came here, it was pretty much a fledgling enterprise. And so I had some experience and I had a determination and a belief that it was an essential aspect of a great university and that we needed to build it and build it fast. And with the help of a lot of wonderfully supportive and generous people in the volunteer community, we managed to get it up and going. We are right in the top five all the time among public universities in private fund-raising.
LARSEN: What techniques, what secrets of fund-raising have you applied? Number one you do a lot of schmoozing with wealthy, prospective donors, don't you?
GERBERDING: Yes. Well, first of all you have to have a plausible product to sell. And the University of Washington is so good and it is so deeply rooted in this community and has enough stature outside the state of Washington, that you have a good base to begin with.
And then you try to put prospective donors in touch with elements of this University that would interest them. You have to have a relationship of trust with people or you're never going to get in the front door.
No individual can do that on his own or her own, so you need a very good staff. I have the best development director ever invented in [Vice President for Development] Marilyn Dunn. I get more credit than I deserve for these wonderful numbers we've generated. What I have done is provide the impetus and the funding for the development office and the organizational structure that permits Marilyn and me and her fine staff and all those volunteers to go out there and spread the word, and one thing leads to another. It's interesting that we now raise roughly $50 million a year and we're not in a campaign mode anymore.
As dusk gathered over Pasadena that New Year's Day, 1992, the Rose Bowl was aglow with light and the stadium was rocking with the joy of University of Washington football fans.
For the game on the field, only minutes remained. The Huskies had assured themselves of a convincing victory over Michigan. TV network cameras and their blazing lights turned to the stadium sections where Washington fans were jabbing arms and index fingers skyward, chanting, "We're Number One!"
For the first time, the UW had a national football championship.
In the sea of happy faces, none shone with greater glee than that of Bill Gerberding as he gazed in all directions, grinning with jubilation, soaking up the sights of the panorama around him.
Years ago, as a sports-minded kid growing up in Minnesota, Gerberding always thought there was "something truly magical about that Rose Bowl out in California." On New Year's Day, the Minnesota landscape would be snowy, frozen, bleak ... and the kid's imagination would be warmed by a classic football game played in a distant, balmy, glamorous world ... under the sun in southern California -- "a symbolic American event."
Now, all these years later, here was that Minnesota kid, right in that same magical arena -- president of a great university that was winning the Rose Bowl and, with it, a national championship.
Gerberding had helped guide the UW through a budget crisis to a new position of national leadership -- in health-science research, in many other fields. A private fund-raising program was raising millions and exceeding expectations.
The game ended. Ecstatic fans, savoring the 34-14 victory over Michigan, slowly left the Rose Bowl.
Of the thousands of UW celebrants that glorious day, none could anticipate the startling events the following months would bring -- events that would plunge the institution into fresh agony.
The year would bring charges that the UW football program violated NCAA regulations ... news media criticism ... and, in the next year, an election in which voters would approve an initiative that would threaten to reverse the long budget recovery that had barely begun for the UW.
LARSEN: What have been some of your major disappointments during your presidency?
GERBERDING: I've made some appointments that I'd like to have back. But, on the whole, I really think that of the 50 or 75 major appointments that I've made, my batting average is pretty good.
I would say my major disappointment is that we have not established a secure funding basis for this institution in the long run. We have managed through various campaigns and efforts and hard work to re-float the University after the hard times in the '80s. I think we've improved the quality of instruction and the quality of the students and faculty on this campus over those 15 years; I'm fairly confident we have. But, now, we are again going through really excruciatingly difficult times. I would dearly love to see this institution have a more stable funding base and it's going to be my successor's task to continue to try to establish that. I have not been all that successful at it.
LARSEN: You referred to some of the appointments you'd like to have back. There was considerable media attention about the ouster of Dr. David Dale as dean of the medical school.
GERBERDING: I'm not going to identify which of those appointments I made I'd like to have back. I will say about David Dale that he is a very fine physician and a real asset to this institution. I've seen him a few times lately. He's a remarkably resilient man who's making a scholarly and patient-care contribution of the first order.
LARSEN: Among your disappointments, the Pac10 penalties have to be on your list too, right?
GERBERDING: Right. Other than the budget cuts, the Pac-10 penalties would constitute the most painful personal experience I've had. It doesn't have anything remotely resembling the importance to the University that the budget cuts have had. Because, after all, the intercollegiate athletics program is self-supporting and whatever happens isn't directly affecting the core life of this institution. But, speaking strictly personally, regarding the amount of grief associated with it, the Pac-10 penalties are pretty close to the top of my unpleasant memories.
LARSEN: Some blame was placed on you by the media for being less than aggressive in representing the University case in that.
GERBERDING: Right. Right.
LARSEN: Comment on that.
GERBERDING: Well, there were even nastier charges than that. There was a ... I mean, the most bizarre suggestion was that I was not only ineffective, but that I had somehow conspired to have it happen. I don't suppose there were many people who believed that but it really was ugly out there. And there was a death threat. It just got crazy around here for a while. But if anybody would really like to know what happened in the Pac-10 session on the subject ,I would be happy to provide them with the minutes. I didn't write the minutes. They show me very vigorously protesting the proposed sanctions.
LARSEN: You've been criticized for having micro-managed the athletic department too much. Your response to that?
GERBERDING: There's some truth to that. I was once involved in a decision to remove a coach -- only once -- and that was a mistake. If I had that to do over again I wouldn't do it.
There is an odd ambivalence in the media and in the public about presidential roles in intercollegiate athletics. On the one hand, you find the Knight Commission and editorial boards stating with great strength and force that intercollegiate athletics needs to be better governed, needs to be better integrated into the institution, and the only persons that can do that are presidents: Therefore the creation of the president's commission in the NCAA and so forth are steps in the right direction. Presidents should have a major role in the direction of intercollegiate sports. If you put the issue that way, you'd get over 90 percent for that proposition. If, on the other hand, you find that a decision has been made in your own favorite intercollegiate athletic program that bears some of the president's fingerprints, you denounce the president for mucking around in areas he allegedly knows nothing about.
LARSEN: You had, at one time, advocated certain kinds of compensation, particularly for football players. You lifted that as a trial balloon, I believe. Do you still believe in that?
GERBERDING: I have no doubt that that issue will re-emerge in a powerful way and that there will be a movement towards my prescription.
LARSEN: That prescription is?
GERBERDING: In certain revenue sports, in particular football, athletes are entitled to more than the standard minimal NCAA financial-aid package. They are generating millions of dollars for the institution and they have many restrictions on what they can do. They can't work during the academic year. They're watched very carefully in terms of their summer employment. We learned about that to our great sorrow here recently. That [summer employment] was the core of our problem in recent years. And yet they do not have a living wage. I think it's unfair.
If you are a young person, male or female, out of a severely disadvantaged background -- and many of our very gifted athletes come out of those backgrounds -- they cannot live normal lives. They can't work like other students can. They can't take jobs during the year. They live hand-to-mouth because of these NCAA restrictions. All I ever said was that certain athletes on whom the institution is dependent for the generation of these large amounts of revenue, that those athletes ought to be granted a stipend. A minimal stipend, not big.
People say, well, that's a violation of amateur status. Well, I have a fundamental argument against the mythology of amateurism. If you want to call them semiprofessionals, of course they're semiprofessionals. All athletes on financial aid are semiprofessionals in that sense. So are flute players on a music scholarship.
LARSEN: You've had some episodes of difficulty with the news media from time to time, for example, the newspaper series about the use of the Walker-Ames Fund for carpeting in the president's residence. And there was media criticism about your role in Athletic Director Mike Lude's departure. What's been your attitude about the news media over the years? Has it been negative?
GERBERDING: There's certainly been some negative coverage. But when you consider how highly visible this position is: It's a very public job. Some people say it's a political job, and in some senses it is political. You certainly are a public official with high visibility. And therefore you're subject to -- and you're very likely to be subjected to -- criticism. But if I look back over 15 and a half years, on balance I don't think I've been badly treated.
There were some episodes and you cited a couple of them, where I think the criticism went overboard. But, on balance, I don't feel particularly aggrieved.
LARSEN: Do you have any response that you want to give now on that Walker-Ames story?
GERBERDING: Oh, I think that was blown way out of proportion. I think the utilization of the funds was perfectly appropriate. The carpet which seemed to arouse so much attention was a very sound investment. We'll save the institution lots of money over the years, and meanwhile there will be a first-class carpet in a first-class residence that is used 60 or 80 times a year to entertain the public and is a major University asset. I think that news coverage was just petty and silly.
LARSEN: What would be your thoughts about shaping and positioning the University of Washington for the next century, given the fact that we're going into an information-data-communications revolution?. Will this institution -- this bricks-and-mortar arrangement -- still be appropriate?
GERBERDING: Yes, I think so. And I think the University of Washington is in a very advantageous position. There was this explosion of building, so that in the sciences and engineering we're going to have very up-to-date, sophisticated facilities.
We have a very strong faculty in those areas, and they attract other strong faculty and very good students. Also we are here in Seattle with the biggest exporter in the United States -- the Boeing Company -- right around the corner, with Microsoft here, with that whole vast emergence of the software industry sort of headquartered here in Seattle. We're a Pacific Rim entity. I think this is an ideal location for a great university. And it has the faculty and the facilities and the energy to capture all that synergy.
LARSEN: You and others made the argument on behalf of this institution and higher education that it has become a generator for the creation of skilled workers, creative people and jobs. So now you're suggesting that there's also kind of a reverse synergy -- the institution itself now can be enhanced by the surroundings that it has created?
GERBERDING: Consider the fact that we have received close to $15 million from the Boeing Company over the last decade or so. Which is that reverse synergy that you're talking about.
Consider the fact that with a $12-million gift from Bill Gates, we recruited Leroy Hood, one of the premier scientists in the world today, who is on the absolute cutting edge of biotechnology. And we are in the process of continuing to recruit the very best people into those fields because of where we are and the kind of strength we have here.
It's wonderful to watch. If we can keep this place afloat and even faintly well funded, it's going to just move from strength to strength. I'll be watching it with glee and pride.
LARSEN: What would be your parting message to political leaders and citizens of this state about the future role and importance and structure of UW in our society?
GERBERDING: My message would be, in the natural concern with enhancing access as the population of this state grows, don't overlook quality. There has emerged here -- almost in a fit of absent-mindedness -- one of the great universities in the United States. And I think it is very much in the interests of this state to have such an institution. It can be funded. It can be supported properly in this state. And it's very much in the state's interest to do that.
Now, we've been emphasizing science and technology and so forth and I don't blush about that. I'm proud to be associated with that. But this University has a lot of impact beyond that. We train the professionals. When distinguished members of the fourth estate need to have their hearts repaired, we've got the best people available to do that. We train lawyers, physicians and so forth.
Beyond that , I was struck recently by one of those polls -- we're not too keen about these polls that come out in US News and World Report, but we do read them like everybody else. I was struck by the fact that our drama school was rated the third best in the country. What a wonderful recognition of a long tradition. This is a great theater town, one of the best in the country -- per capita, maybe the best. And that began as an offshoot of the School of Drama here. So this University trains people not only for the professions, not only for science and technology and the business community; it's also training all kinds of other people, who are educated, who can think, who are creative and make a contribution in the arts and the humanities.
LARSEN: You made reference to the University being almost a result of "a fit of absent-mindedness." You've got to elaborate on that for me.
GERBERDING: Well, somebody said that the British acquired their empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. And there's some truth to the witticism. But what I mean in this connection is that the state of Washington did not set out to create as, say, Michigan did in the middle of the 19th century, the greatest public university anywhere in the world. What happened here, for a whole variety of reasons, is that an institution emerged here that is far better than you would guess if you just looked at the funding level over the last 50 years. It boot-strapped itself in a variety of ways. It's partly, of course, the attractiveness of the area. Because of the Mt. Rainier factor, you can hire people out here for less. I don't like to admit that, but it's true. And then there was the Warren G. Magnuson/Henry M. Jackson phenomenon.
LARSEN: Which is sort of still being felt in many ways.
GERBERDING: That's right, indirectly. Then, too, you had a lot of towering figures on the faculty and people like Charles Odegaard on the administrative side, who took this institution and raised its sights and increased its quality by hook and by crook, so that by the time I was lucky enough to come here in 1979, you had one of the half dozen best public universities in the country. In most states that didn't happen. It happened here. That's why I say a fit of absent-mindedness.
"It was deja vu, all over again: A Kane Hall full of weary profs and angry, anxious students; and an even wearier-looking Bill Gerberding, still University of Washington president after all these years, explaining why, once again, the UW must cut a cumu a
tive tenth of its budget to help the state balance its budget."Writer Eric Scigliano of the Seattle Weekly thus aptly described one gloomy scene on campus -- and the gloomy mood of Gerberding -- as the institution struggles to comply with state budget constraints imposed by Initiative 601.
With a faint grin, Gerberding today can kiddingly speculate that he might have taken the cowardly course -- by retiring a year earlier.
As it is, in his final months on the job, the outgoing UW president finds himself coping with, as he told that Kane Hall crowd, "a nightmare" -- a new, more painful, wrenching budget cut from the Washington Legislature and, more recently, threats of slashes in federal funding.
LARSEN: Some of your final work at the UW involves dealing with deep budget cuts, again. What are your thoughts about having to do an exit in that kind of negative circumstance?
GERBERDING: Well, a certain amount of self-pity comes into it. This is not how I wanted to spend my last year in this job.
Leaving that to one side, and viewing it strictly institutionally, there are kind of two ways of viewing this. Many people very close to this University and very friendly to this University view it rather differently from the way I view it: It is their view that this is an opportunity to get rid of some programs that you really don't much need any more, and that in the long run, painful as it is, all of this is good for the University of Washington. That emphatically is not my view.
I think this is not only painful, I think this is harmful. Because a university is not -- all the jokes to the contrary -- simply a collection of fiefdoms. It does have a kind of corporate sense of itself. And even those persons in departments who are spared a cut this time because we're doing part of the cut vertically, are not at all pleased about what's happening. There's a sense of being wounded and dismembered about all of this. This is not good for this University: short-term, middle-term or long-term.
LARSEN: Yet this sounds very reminiscent of 1982 when your law dean at the time said he was being asked to dismantle the place.
GERBERDING: But consider this: How many times can you do those things? How many times can you eliminate a Department of Kinesiology? We eliminated the Department of Kinesiology and we eliminated a lot of other things hither and yon, to save enough money, to get us through that time. But we are now talking about departments for which a very powerful argument can be made about their utility to this institution, their importance to the overall mission of the institution, and to the people of this state.
We are not getting rid of programs whose time has come and gone and we're now moving on to more modern and contemporary uses. We're talking about eliminating programs that are perfectly legitimate and belong in this University. We're past the point where we can eliminate something that we won't miss. Whatever the final outcome is -- and we'll know that this spring when we know what our budget is and when all these program reviews are over -- it's going to be damaging to this institution. Now it's not going ruin the University, and the University's going to survive this. It's going to be strong and it will get past this. But the notion that somehow this is therapeutic is very wide of the mark.
LARSEN: When you talked about your feeling of accomplishment in bringing the institution through the 1980s and that economic decline, you were comparing that with today, suggesting there is a difference between the two times. Can you elaborate?
GERBERDING: Well there are several differences. The level of budget reduction is almost identical. It's about 10 percent. The differences are that in the early '80s this state was going through a prolonged, agonizing recession. And the people in this University understood how their fellow citizens were suffering and how rough it was out there.
Today it's different for several reasons. First of all, we are not in the grip of a prolonged recession. So the requirement for reductions of this size is less obvious. And secondly, this cut was legislatively mandated because of the spending limits imposed by Initiative 601. There's enough revenue in the state for us to avoid this cut altogether, but the revenue can't be spent because of the spending limit. So that puts people's teeth on edge. It isn't so obviously necessary.
Then the third factor is that in the early '80s we were sometimes criticized for making our cuts too much across board and hurting the overall quality of the institution and not making "the hard, tough reallocation choices." I think that criticism was overdone because there were a lot of programs eliminated and a lot of reallocation. But nonetheless, there was some truth to it. We are now in the process, depending on what happens over the next six or seven months, of possibly making more highly visible, vertical cuts in this University than we did in the '80s. And that's deeply divisive. There are lots of people on this campus whose careers and livelihoods have either been endangered or ruined. They have many friends and colleagues. There are scores and hundreds of students being drastically affected. So, for all of those reasons, the whole mood on campus is more combative, more angry than it was even in the early '80s.
LARSEN: You're going to have a successor. What would be your advice to that successor as he or she comes in and sits down at your desk and takes over -- what are the pitfalls and what are the things that you'd counsel that person on?
GERBERDING: Probably my first bit of advice would be not to pay any attention to old, worn-out presidents like me, but to follow his or her own path. But insofar as I have any prescriptive things to say, it would be: Remain preoccupied with quality. Get deeply immersed in this community and state. Try to develop a strong relationship with the faculty, because the faculty is indispensable here and it's important to retain levels of civility between the administration and the faculty -- not to become estranged from it. And you can say similar things about the students.
LARSEN: Any particular pitfalls you'd warn about?
GERBERDING: No, there aren't. You know, I was wondering the other day how many enemies I thought I had developed. Not the number of people who feel hostile towards me -- there must be plenty of them, especially with these new cuts -- but just in general.
How many people do I feel that I have a grievance with? It's a very, very short list.
This is a very civilized University plunked down in the middle of a very civilized community. There is an aura of civility about this place that is simply wonderful. So I don't know what pitfalls I'd warn somebody about. I mean there aren't dragons out there.
LARSEN: One final question, Bill. What are you going to do from now on? What are your plans for the future?
GERBERDING: That remains to be seen. I'm going to take some time off. Maybe beginning in the fall of '96 I'll come back on a parttime basis and do some teaching. Meanwhile, I'll decide whether there are some interesting things coming across my horizon. I'm on several corporate boards and I am now on the Seattle Opera Board. I'm doing a little bit -- not much yet -- helping the symphony raise money for its hall. And maybe I'll play a little more golf. There'll be enough to do. END
Richard Larsen was for many years a political writer and associate editor of the Seattle Times. He has written often about higher education.