September 2004 -

First Impressions

Like all of you, I was once a student at the University of Washington. The teachers, the friends, the favorite haunts on and off campus, all helped shape the person I would become. In 1975, I packed up my new bachelor's degree and headed east to graduate school. But I kept up with the UW during an academic career spread over many years and places. Now I am back. Leading this University, for which I have so much affection and which changed my life in so many ways, is a privilege I still cannot quite believe.

How does the UW look to someone newly returned? In a word, remarkable. And despite the obvious changes, there is a core here that makes it still the alma mater I remember.

First there is the sheer physical sense of place. A fair number of American campuses might be described as Nondescript U. Not the University of Washington. The Seattle campus-the only UW campus, of course, when I was a student-is a place of great beauty that declares, "This is the Northwest." The very special setting here, the proximity to water and mountains, the trees and campus landscape, and the new buildings that enhance rather than diminish all this-these things speak of an institution and a region in which the physical environment matters. Every time I have come back, I have found the campus looking better. The two new campuses, also, are distinctive and beautiful expressions of place. (For someone who grew up around Tacoma, UWT has wonderfully transformed its neighborhood almost beyond recognition.)

Second, I recognize here the same academic excitement that stirred me and raised my sights as a student. This is not a surprise. Over the years, a number of UW programs have risen up in my field of vision as they gained national prominence. I have followed the University's stunning achievements in medicine and computer science and psychology and drama and many other fields. Still, I have found it an extraordinary experience to come back and see all this in its totality. The University of Washington has gathered together an exceptional array of faculty, staff and programs, even without anything special in the way of financial resources. There is an intellectual charge in the air that I remember well.

Finally, this is still a community of very warm and friendly and welcoming people who clearly have a great deal of affection for this University. Even though many come from far away, they reflect the character of the Northwest that I remember from growing up here. The students I have met so far are much like the ones I went to school with 30 years ago: bright (probably brighter), excited, engaged and engaging. Many are still first-generation college students, as I was. As for the faculty, I see them perhaps more clearly today than I did back then. They are, as a group, strikingly entrepreneurial, with a distinctive sense of interdisciplinary connection. They are flexible, experimental, ready to take a chance on things other people are not willing to try. They are the kinds of people you want at a major research university confronting the great challenges and promises of the 21st century.

There is important work ahead. Some will be challenging: expanding access for the state's students, solving the UW's significant funding problems, advancing diversity. Some, for me, will be exhilarating: learning about all the remarkable things that are going on here and spreading the word to everyone who will listen. The UW is clearly poised to make ever greater contributions to its home state and to the larger world. Being part of that, back here where I began, is a dream come true.

Mark Emmert, '75