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September 30, 2010

Interim President Phyllis Wise: The University’s needs won’t wait

Editor’s note: Interim President Wise will give the annual president’s address to the UW community at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12, in 130 Kane.

Her title is interim president of the University, but Phyllis Wise says that she is the president — for an interim period of time. The difference isn’t semantic.

“I think we have to accomplish some things this year that just can’t wait for the next president to arrive,” Wise says. “If I am tentative, people will believe that they can just sit and wait. And I don’t think we can afford to do that. So on paper I will sign my name with the title the regents have given me — interim president — but I’m going to speak and act as president for an interim period of time.”

This week the campus community bade goodbye to President Mark Emmert, who is heading off to a new job as president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Wise, who has served as provost since 2005, is stepping into the presidency until such time as a new president is chosen. She is not a candidate for the permanent job.

But she is tackling her new role with gusto. Since being named interim president by the Board of Regents this summer, she has been on “a pretty intense listening and learning tour,” meeting with constituents both inside the University and out. She’ll continue on that course this fall, she says, and will be concentrating on three things during her presidency:


  • The budget challenges
  • The Two Years to Two Decades Initiative (2y2d)
  • Pre-launch and planning for a new capital campaign

The budget is of course front and center, with the recent announcement by Gov. Chris Gregoire of another round of across-the-board cuts for state agencies.

“I’ve already met with the governor and several key legislators and I will be meeting with many more,” Wise says. “I’m really interested in hearing what their major concerns are and will be working tirelessly to convince them that protecting higher education funding has to be a top priority next session. I think if we can get more elected officials to appreciate the broad contributions of higher education — what the UW does for the citizens of the state — not only educating our young people but the University’s contributions to the economy and the health of the region and beyond — that we’ll be able to figure out solutions together.”

The most recent cut announced by the governor is 6.3 percent. Wise says Interim Provost Mary Lidstrom and Vice Provost for Planning and Budgeting Paul Jenny are working on how these reductions will be allocated and that she will confer with them and with other stakeholders around the University before reporting in mid-October how the university is absorbing the cuts. Her meetings with legislators are about trying to influence the next state budget for the 2011-13 biennium that will be created during the legislative session beginning in January.

Despite all the University’s efforts, it is likely there will be further cuts in that budget due to the slow economic recovery, and Wise says the University will have to consider strategic programmatic consolidation, reconfiguration and additional cuts. “Last year, we certainly took more out of administrative units than we took out of academic units and we told the deans to try really hard not to let this have an impact on the students,” Wise says. “We knew the students would be paying an increasing amount for tuition and we wanted to protect that core as best we could. But you can’t do that two or three more times and not have everyone feel the effects.”

Fortunately, Wise says, the University does extremely well teaching large classes. Still, there are likely to be fewer sections, fewer classes being offered because deans have to cut classes with low enrollment in order to serve as many students as possible.

Just as troubling is the situation with faculty, some of whom are being recruited away to universities where budgets are in better shape. Saying “we are only as good as our faculty,” Wise warns that if the situation doesn’t turn around, “this won’t remain a great university, and we can’t let that happen.”

However, she also notes that the University, more than other state agencies, has some other sources of revenue, including tuition, gifts, grants and contracts and commercialization of ideas. Wise says she’ll be talking with legislators about the University’s need for greater regulatory flexibility in order to do its business more efficiently and effectively.

“I think we could create a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow ourselves to become pessimistic,” Wise says. “There’s no doubt that this is probably the biggest budget challenge the University has faced in decades. I have not talked with anyone who’s been here for a long time who’s said, ‘Well, it’s not as bad as it was in nineteen x.’ But that’s not to say that we can’t meet that challenge. I really do believe that when the economy turns around, there will be a handful of universities who come out better because they have thought ahead and planned ahead and managed ahead. And I am confident that the UW will be one of them.”

The budget difficulties are an incentive for the University to pursue the Two Years to Two Decades Initiative (2y2d), Wise believes. “We need to develop a sustainable academic business plan that considers the financial underpinning that’s critical to academic excellence,” she said. “Then we need to envision the 20-years-from-now university. What is that going to look like? How are we going to be positioned to be the best then — to be able to attract the best faculty, students and staff, to be able to solve the most critical challenges to society?”

As provost, Wise led the 2y2d effort. She says several focus groups of faculty have already met and produced reports, and that those reports are available on a website. Still to come are meetings with the deans, chancellors and vice provosts, as well as consultation with faculty, student, and staff groups. Now that Wise is becoming president, Interim Provost Mary Lidstrom will be leading this effort. Wise thinks a plan may be in place by July of 2011.

The final goal for Wise’s presidency is to begin pre-planning for a capital campaign. The last campaign ended in June of 2008, raising a record $2.68 billion.

“Universities don’t start new campaigns without a lot of planning and they don’t start them under an interim president,” Wise says. “I want to respect that, but I think we can do a lot of planning. I’ve already spoken with [Vice President for University Advancement] Connie Kravas and will be talking with her more in the coming months.”

Wise expects that her presidency will be for just one year, noting that the search committee is working hard and that the job is one of the most desirable presidencies currently open. For the present she’s plunging in to her new role. “This wasn’t in my plans, but I’m very excited about it,” she says. “I’ve embraced it and feel privileged to work with people who share my hopes to make the UW an even better place.”