Put Students' Learning at the Center of Our University's Work, Says McCormick

The following are excerpts from an address to the University community made November 14, 1995 by President Richard L. McCormick. The full text of the address is available on the President's Page on the World Wide Web.

Today the opportunity is mine to set forth some values and visions for our University, but neither I nor any of us can reach the future we seek except in partnership with each other and with men and women across our state and beyond.

The University of Washington was established in 1861, long before statehood and even before there were any public schools to prepare students for the University. ... Through good times and bad, the University and the people of Washington were mutually supportive. That's what it meant to be a state university. And it still does.

President Richard L. McCormick addresses the UW community on November 14, 1995. Photo by Mary Levin.

Two of the most important changes in our University's history bear directly on my message today, and I want to tell you about them. First, beginning nearly a hundred years ago, just after the establishment of our present campus, the UW went through a period of exceptional growth and creativity. It added professional school in mining, law, engineering and pharmacy among others, and through them the University began to address the needs of many different sectors of the community. ... In the years after World War II the UW again changed and developed. The schools of medicine and dentistry and the hospital all date from this period. Research grew significantly in many fields, as did the number of students.

... These historic transitions were not easy, and each was accompanied by painful internal conflicts. But both were successful, and they brought the University of Washington by stages into the circle of the finest universities in the nation, where it is today. In both eras, stepping up to meet new demands brought academic distinction and a major investment of dollars from many sources to the UW. There's a lesson to be learned there.

...The best and highest values of American education may be seen on our campus. The opportunities for advanced learning afforded to men and women regardless of their backgrounds, the responsiveness to the problems of the people of our state, the haven for free inquiry and for unpopular ideas, the shining star of liberal education and of liberating ideas--all these find expression in the work of our University.

My task as president is to protect and preserve these strengths and to ensure that all who come to the UW have what is needed to achieve their goals to the fullest extent of their abilities.

... Your University is excellent today, it is not a foregone conclusion that it will remain so. The challenges we face are very great. First there are budgetary and financial constraints. ... There are others, emanating from the world around us and within. First are changes that we are already experiencing, and of which we can expect more, in our student body. There is a huge emerging demand for access to higher education. It is often described as the baby boom echo. ... In addition to the demand for access, there are challenges arising from changes in the economics and the technologies of higher education.

As if all this were not enough, there is yet another challenge we face. And that is a harsh critique of higher education, especially public higher education. ... Above all there is a concern that we are neglecting undergraduate education in favor of research and graduate education. ... The same critics often observe that the research we are doing is not relevant to the people of our state and that the public service we perform is too limited.

How are we going to answer these arguments? How are we going to make the case for the University of Washington? To ensure the distinction of our University and to secure its place among the finest universities in the nation, we must respond to the challenges. There is no choice.

... Responding effectively does not just mean doing what our critics tell us to do. We have values to preserve and standards to uphold. These include, but are not limited to, academic excellence, freedom of inquiry, the enhancement of diversity, and the commitment to the liberal arts and sciences as a foundation for the rest of education. For this reason, even the best intentioned observers cannot reform this University as well as we ourselves can do it. But beware because if we don't, they will.

What's required is nothing less than re-earning public support and understanding for the University of Washington. That kind of support is not owed to us automatically. ... It must be gained afresh by every generation at the UW, and now it is our turn. That won't be easy, and each of you has your own ideas about how to accomplish it. I have mine and here they are, just four of them.

... First, and here I repeat myself, we must reaffirm our values, of which foremost is academic excellence. That should inform everything we do. We must make clear that mediocrity will not be tolerated at the UW, in our students' work anymore than in our own teaching and research.

... Second, besides insisting on excellence which comes naturally to this faculty and within this University community, the most important thing we must do is learn to be smart about our University as each of us is about his or her own work. That may sound banal, but it is not, and here is what I mean. We must think strategically and make the hard choices to seize the right opportunities.

... I turn now to two important areas in which we must make our University both different and better. We are already making progress in both, and I hope that no one will think I am suggesting otherwise. But we must do more in each by demanding excellence and thinking strategically.

First is a goal ... of improving and if necessary, transforming teaching and learning. We have got to put our students' learning again at the center of our University's work. This is not a goal for the moment or in response to political pressure. Rather it is a recognition of where we came from and where we must go. Teaching was our initial mission, and it still must remain our first.

... The other area in which we must extend and recommit our University is public service and outreach. This is a historic mission of the University of Washington, never more important than today. It means bringing faculty and student expertise to the problems and needs of the people of our state and our region and beyond. It means aligning the University with the solutions to major social, economic and health care challenges.

... My friends, we can do these things and we must. There is nothing unusual about the challenges before us. And they are no greater than our predecessors faced in the earlier eras I described. We must simply seize the initiative and act. The continued distinction of the University of Washington depends upon us.

... So will you join me in committing anew to being the University of Washington? Since the time of our founding no institution in this state has done as much for the well being of the community and the region as this University. To the people of Washington, then, this pledge: The University will continue to train and teach, to discover and apply new knowledge and to serve. And those of us who work and study here will have the courage to address the problems before us. In return we will expect from you--from legislators, civic leaders, business people, alumni, parents and all the men and women of Washington--the support we need to remain an outstanding center of learning an service, the support we need to be a great state university.


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