August 6, 2009
Telling the UW story: Randy Hodgins takes on new challenge as vice president for external affairs
For the past five and a half years, Randy Hodgins has been telling the UW’s story to the Legislature as the director of state relations. So it was a natural progression when, almost a year ago, he was asked to help tell the UW’s story to the world at large as interim vice president for external affairs.
Now Hodgins is giving up the state relations post and dropping the “interim” from his external affairs title as he’s been named to the permanent position by President Mark Emmert.
“This opens up a whole new set of challenges for me that are really exciting,” Hodgins said.
External Affairs includes Media Relations and Communications, Marketing, State Relations, Federal Relations and Regional Affairs. In a nutshell, Hodgins explained, it is the group that’s responsible for telling the world outside the University all about what is done here, why it’s important, why it’s relevant, how faculty, staff and students are making contributions on behalf of the people, because the UW is a public institution paid for in part by the citizens of Washington.
The challenge comes because of the difficult financial situation the state finds itself in, with fewer dollars to give to institutions, however worthy. And like other units at the University, External Affairs will have to do its work with fewer resources.
But this is just the latest in a series of challenges Hodgins has taken on since he was dragged to Washington state as a reluctant teenager. His father had taken a job here, he explained, and he and his sister were moved from northern Virginia, where they’d lived most of their lives, and taken to the West Coast, where they had never been. Hodgins was a junior in high school then, and vowed he would go back East as soon as he’d graduated.
He ended up delaying that move until after he’d spent a year as a UW student — choosing the University simply because it was close and affordable — then he took off. But to his dismay he found that he missed the Northwest, so back he came to the UW. He graduated with a self-created degree combining English, history and political science.
“I felt I wasn’t done with school at that point,” he said. “I started looking into a lot of possibilities, including law school, but someone suggested public affairs, and that sounded appealing.”
As an undergraduate, Hodgins had considered majoring in urban planning, so public affairs brought him back to his interest in cities and how they work. “I thought I’d go to work in a big city government — either for a mayor or a city council,” he said.
But it was not to be. After getting his master’s from what is now the Evans School of Public Affairs, Hodgins decided, “on a whim,” to interview for the Legislative Analyst’s Office in California — that state’s nonpartisan legislative budget office.
Although he’d mainly gone for the interview in order to get a free trip to California, Hodgins found “there were 100 people in the office, all my age, all fascinated with public policy and politics and equally eager and ambitious.” So when he was offered a job he took it immediately. That led to four and a half memorable years as a budget analyst for the California State Legislature.
“I got to travel all over California,” he said. “Pretty heady stuff for a 26, 27-year-old to be testifying in front of legislative committees. In that job I learned how to write clearly and succinctly. I learned how to take a presentation and cut it down from 5 minutes to 2 minutes to 30 seconds. I learned a lot of my presentation skills. It was an incredible training ground.”
But he and his wife, a Seattle native, always intended to return to the Northwest, so Hodgins ultimately took a similar job in Olympia, where he worked his way up to chief of staff for the Legislature’s Senate Ways and Means Committee. He was happily employed there for 16 years and thought he would retire from that job. But then he reached a point where he felt the sense of challenge was waning.
“I think a lot of people get to the point where they say, ‘I think I’ve done everything with this job that I can do.’ That’s where I was,” Hodgins recalled. “I decided I wanted to learn more. I wanted to grow more. I wanted another challenge.”
That challenge presented itself when Dick Thompson, the UW’s director of state relations, decided to retire. He had known Hodgins when they both worked in Olympia, and he called to ask Hodgins, “Did you mean what you said in my going-away card?”
Hodgins was confused. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
Then Thompson reminded him that when he had left Olympia to take the University job, Hodgins had written on his going-away card, “Congratulations on the job at the UW. When you’re done with it, give me a call.”
“I remembered it then,” Hodgins said, “and he asked if I was joking or not. I said I was half joking and half not.
“He said, ‘Well, I’m calling your bluff. Do you want to apply for this?’ So I thought about it and I talked to my wife, and I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’”
Hodgins was hired by Interim President Lee Huntsman and retained by Emmert, who became president not long after. He has spearheaded the University’s pitch to the Legislature since then.
“I really enjoyed working in state relations,” he said. “I wasn’t bored with it at all. But when President Emmert asked me to take the interim job with External Affairs, it just seemed like a great opportunity. And I can’t resist any new challenge.”
Now that he has the job permanently, there are plenty of challenges ahead.
“The president has said the University is going to have to be more entrepreneurial in order to sustain itself and not rely on the state to fund as many new initiatives,” Hodgins said. “We’re going to have to grow and nurture other revenue streams. But he doesn’t mean that we will abandon our public mission. This is all about trying to fulfill and expand our public mission without having enough public dollars.”
The role of External Affairs in this shift is to help the public understand what the University is doing and why, and Hodgins realizes it’s a daunting assignment that will require input from all of the unit’s subdivisions. “This is going to be an all-hands-on-deck project for External Affairs,” he said.
“We’ll have to think very long and hard about how we tell that story.”