Office of the President

October 18, 2016

The 2016 University of Washington Annual President’s Address: For Washington and the World

Office of the President

On October 18, 2016, President Ana Mari Cauce delivered the 2016 Annual President’s Address in the Physics/Astronomy Auditorium. 

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Together we can have unprecedented impact

Thank you, Zoe, for that lovely introduction and thank you all for being here today. I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on the land of the Coast Salish peoples which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip, and Muckleshoot nations. And I want to welcome all of you who are here today: a special welcome to our Regents here — Bill Ayer, Joel Benoliel, Joanne Harrell and Pat Shanahan. They put in countless hours helping to make us a great university and making sure we fulfill our public mission. Also, a warm welcome to our students, faculty, staff, and other friends – whether here or watching from your screens on one of our campuses.

The Annual Address is kind of like our State of the Union. It’s tempting to take it as an opportunity to brag a little – for example, I could mention that UW Professor Emeritus David J. Thouless was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics – or that U.S. News & World Report ranked the UW 11th best global university. And sure, I could brag about the fact that Reuters rated us 5th most innovative university, or that U.S. News and World Report ranked the UW’s medical school #1 in family medicine, primary care, and rural medicine – and we’re #1 in Nursing too.

Or how about the fact that our donors’ generosity, including many people in this room, broke the record for giving to a public university with $542 million last year?

I might even mention that our football team was ranked #5 in the country! How about them Huskies!

But I’m going to resist that temptation.

It’s not that those honors and recognitions don’t matter – they do. They recognize our work and our achievements and they signal to the world that we are doing great things. Our reputation as a world class, top tier university translates into our students’ and alumni’s reputation as top tier talent. And the public recognition of our incredible faculty increases their influence and their opportunities.

So, yes, those superlatives – those pride points or “bragging rights” – matter, but not so that we can beat our chests! It’s because those superlatives help our impact, like ripples spreading out from a drop in a pond.

That’s what I want to talk about today – the impact of the UW, our impact. When I get asked what my vision for the University of Washington is, I have a ready answer: I want this university to be the number one university in the world in terms of impact. I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about that impact – on our state, nation and our world. Above all, on our collective future.

There is not a person in this room or probably in this state, who hasn’t felt the impact of the University of Washington. Whether you are among our more than 50,000 students and countless alumni, a patient treated at one of our hospitals, someone who’s attended a show at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts, or someone who’s just wandered through the arboretum to see the Fall leaves or through the Quad when the cherry blossoms are out – the UW has touched your life.

Over the last few years, we’ve focused on ways that the University impacts the lives of our students. Under the leadership of Provost Baldasty, together with faculty, administrative, staff, faculty and student leaders, we’ve been working on enhancing the Husky experience, referring both to what students experience inside and outside the classroom.

We’re improving our teaching and curriculum. We’ve built a world class Teaching and Learning Center – and I do mean WORLD class: we’re partnering with WASEDA University, one of the finest in Japan, as they build their center. Faculty like Scott Freeman and his colleagues in Biology are examining the impact of using active learning strategies in intro science classes. He’s developed techniques that improve student learning, especially for underrepresented minority and low income students – turning courses that have been called “weeder” courses into “feeder” courses.

This focus on active or experiential learning can also be seen in the new curriculum that’s just been introduced into all of UW’s medical programs, here in Seattle, in Spokane and all WWAMI sites. Students spend more time with patients – both one-on-one and under faculty supervision. This strengthens their learning and patient care.

We’re also working on student development outside the classroom with programs like the Husky Leadership Initiative, UW Bothell’s Community-Based Learning and Research, and Green Dot, which engages students in becoming active bystanders who step in, speak up and interrupt potential acts of violence.

One of my favorite places is the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center; it would make him so happy to see all the activity happening there, from students just hanging out in affinity groups to faculty-led teach ins on race and equity, to galas – and I just love the Resilience Lab – whose aim is to “normalize” failure as part of risk-taking and having big, audacious goals!

Have an interest? We may not have an app for that, but we do have a club – 850 student organizations. And every year almost 3,000 students are involved in service-learning activities, and about 2,000 students complete internships in businesses or community agencies. These programs, experiences and activities cultivate students who are curious, engaged, bold and resilient.

At its heart, a UW education is about the transformation that occurs when a student, through their work and interactions with other members in our community – in the classroom, through a project, a club, or yes, even a protest, realizes that he or she has the power to change the world for the better.

What we see again and again is that the impact the UW has on a student leads them to have an impact on others. Take a student like Mayowa Aina from Tacoma, a senior earning a dual-degree in international studies and informatics (and, I will add, a minor in music and the comparative history of ideas). She’s also in the Husky Marching Band, past President of the Black Student Union – she’s been a writing tutor and an Orientation leader. She says she found her self at the UW and, having found it, is giving something back.

Or take Mac Zellem, who, after graduation this past spring, wrote Jerry and me a letter I will keep forever. An economics and international studies major he wrote “Everyone is so interested in others’ fields of study, it was like being in a never ending seminar on knowledge.” Mac kept pretty busy, chairing the Services & Activities Fee Committee, serving on the Student Publication Board, and sailing on Union Bay. He credits the UW with opening the world up to him and closed his letter with this: “The University of Washington gave me an experience for which I will forever be obliged. One day I hope to do my part in giving back, however I can.”

I am beyond proud to represent a university that is home to people like Mayowa and Mac and look forward to seeing how they make their mark on the world. They, and thousands of students like, and different from them, are transformed and transforming. The thing about changing one life is that it’s never just one life. This is especially so when we provide a higher education to students who are the first in their families to attend University – and that’s 30 percent of our undergraduates!

When you change one life, you start a chain reaction that can continue forever.

That’s what I mean by impact!

Another huge way in which research universities have impact that’s truly unique is through our focus on discovery, innovation and research. This is obvious in science and technology, law and policy, in healthcare and business, and I’ll talk more about some of this work in a moment. But, we also have enormous impact through our work in the humanities, social sciences and the arts – because to make real progress on the huge problems that vex humanity – a degraded environment, violence and war, rising inequality and racism, poverty – we also need to focus on those fields that help us understand the nature of power, what it means to be human, and what makes our lives worth living. Given the pace of technology, the way it shrinks the world so that we rub up against difference more often, that’s never been more important.

Take the work of Valerie Curtis-Newton. Valerie leads the Hansberry Project which, for ten years, has provided a literal stage for African American actors and playwrights to share black life, history and culture with the community.

Or consider the work of the UW Center for Human Rights in the Jackson School led by Angelina Goodoy. They do work across the world from El Salvador to Rwanda, on issues as disparate – but interconnected – as environmental justice and victims of government oppression. And lest we forget that human rights abuses don’t just happen beyond our borders, the Center is doing important work here in the U.S. to understand and reduce the terrible consequences of mass incarceration.

That’s impact too!

Sometimes the impact we have is immediate…

Dr. Jorge Reyes, chief of transplant surgery at UW Medical Center was the first to perform an intestinal transplant in the Pacific Northwest. Computer Science Professor Shyam Gollakota and two of his students have developed a way to transmit passwords through the human body instead of over the air where they are vulnerable to hacking. Professor Julia Parish in the College of the Environment is creating a network of citizen scientists to monitor their local marine environments. Biology Professor Sam Wasser’s work using DNA-based wildlife forensics led the New York Times to call him the Sherlock Holmes of wildlife trade.

These are all faculty spotlighted in the national media in just the past month or so!

Talking about research that’s gotten international media attention – the work of Professor Thouless’ is a perfect example of the power and long term impact of curiosity-driven research, what some call “pure” or “basic” research. The major breakthrough he made in the area on condensed matter is leading to new applications in electronics and quantum computing.

Ok, so I don’t really understand the science…but I know it’s important because it got the Nobel Prize!

I’m attending the award ceremony in Stockholm, and I can’t imagine any other event that could get me to wear a ball gown!

I’ve talked about the impact we have on, and through, our students, and the impact of our research. That’s how we change world. But these really aren’t separate or separable. One of the most life-changing activities students engage in happens when they work together with faculty building new knowledge. It was an invitation by a professor to join his lab that led me to consider graduate education, which ended up leading me here!

One lab I’ve been lucky enough to visit on several occasions is Professor Tom Daniel’s lab. Tom, faculty in both Biology and CSE, is one of the very rare people who can call himself a “genius,” (although he never would) having won the MacArthur “genius” award. His research looks at how to reverse engineer flight in moths! The Blue Angels may be much flashier, but flying animals are capable of much more precise and agile maneuvers. They need to hover while feeding on a moving flower, engage in complex maneuvers chasing prey and escaping from predators, and they mate in midair!

This requires an understanding of their “sensors,” sensory integration and processing, muscle activation, and the environment. No wonder it takes a team – including undergraduates, graduate students, and post-docs working together. The work is both serious and important, not only helping us understand how the nervous system integrates disparate information, but having implications for how we design man-made flying machines. Yet, every time I’ve stopped by the lab I’m struck not only by the level of activity, but by all the laughter.

And if you ask Tom what he’s most proud of, he won’t tell you about his McArthur, or his Distinguished Teaching Award, or his Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award – he’ll instead rattle off the many awards and accomplishments of his students. He knows they are the ones who will take the work (he would never call it “his” work) forward. It’s truly a virtuous cycle.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of how we’re providing our students cutting edge experiences – opportunities to be involved in research, fieldwork, volunteer engagement, athletics. And I’ve only given you a handful of examples of our world class innovation and research. But, I hope you can begin to see how interrelated they are. The kind of teaching and learning experiences we offer here are shaped by a faculty involved in discovery, performance, applied research, policy. We engage in these side by side with our students, facilitated and supported by the excellent work of our staff members.

This work has direct impacts on our local community and state by creating jobs – when you hire a faculty member involved in “big” research they affect the economy in the same way as a small business owner, employing not only dozens of students, but lab managers, IT professionals, administrative assistants. Some of our research morphs into start-ups. Last year a record 21 start-ups came out of faculty research with the support of Co-Motion.

Our research is often applied on an national and global scale, but it often happens locally first – like our work helping to clean up the Puget Sound, or improving teaching and learning in local school systems.

But, we can do better! By nurturing networks and environments that work across disciplines, and in partnerships with other universities, communities, governments, foundations or businesses.

This happens now, in the E-science institute, Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering or the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. We have a reputation for being collaborative and we will continue to break down the barriers between units and disciplines. But, too often these collaborations happen by chance.

While having breakfast at a friend’s house decades ago, I met a professor in Dentistry and after a conversation, we ended up conducting a study on the behavioral effects of childhood poverty. The meeting happened totally by chance, or serendipity.

When we create spaces, networks or initiatives that reach across disciplines in purposeful, mindful ways, we can give serendipity a push!

Step back and consider the sheer breadth of the disciplines represented here. Some view this as a problem, urging me to just pick our top five areas of investment. But when our breadth is focused and harnessed, it’s a huge strength. In a world where the easy problems have been solved, what’s left are the big, hairy complicated ones that require all hands, and disciplines, on deck.

A natural area for us to lead, to be truly best in world, because of the amazing strengths within the UW, and in our community, is in Population Health. Health is more than the absence of disease. It’s about education, the environment, and public policy. It’s also about racial and economic inequality and inequities. Through this decades-long initiative, we seek to work across our disciplines and campuses, with partners close by and far flung, to improve the health of people and communities, here in Washington state and around the world.

Because our fates are intertwined – neither microbes, nor pollution, nor political problems recognize lines on a map.

This is not only an area where we can lead – it’s an area in which we have an obligation to lead.

Working together, we can make the whole greater than the sum of all of the tremendous, beautiful “parts” that we have here. Together, we can have unprecedented impact. Because when we do things, we do them at scale!

Today, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the good that we’re doing. I’ve given you just a tiny window into the impact that we have on the world, an impact that can multiply exponentially when we work together, across the across the boundaries of disciplines, professions, communities and nations – that’s what I mean by being boundless. It’s more than just a marketing cliché, it’s a state of mind, an approach to our work.

Jerry and I stand ready to work with you and your colleges to tell your stories, to make sure your work is known outside this University and to make sure our work, and our students, are supported. Because with more support we can have greater impact.

We’ve got a legislative session coming up – I’m happy to talk more about it if you’re interested – and we’ll be looking for ways to better involve you as we make our case for increased state support.

And this Friday will mark the public launch of our campaign – “Be Boundless – For Washington, For the World.” This campaign really is unprecedented. I spoke earlier about ambitious goals – well this campaign is ambitious, and it has to be, because it’s about creating the future we want.

One of the things I love about being in campaign mode is that it pushes us to turn the university inside-out. As Mike Halperin, one of our campaign co-chairs so beautifully put it, “Our friends and potential donors, almost half of which did not go to school here, don’t so much just give to us, they give through us.” They give because they want to seed research that will lead to the development of mobile medical devices that will empower us to monitor our own health, help to repair heart tissue, allow young entrepreneurs to start businesses, or to support the next Jacob Lawrence who will use art to help us understand pivotal moments in our country’s history.

There is one aspect of the Campaign that I especially want to highlight and that is the public service initiative that will expand and build on the tremendous amount of service our community already provides. Our students alone performed more than 850,000 hours of public service last year and we could probably never calculate the total public service contributions of our faculty and staff. You volunteer, you serve on boards, you donate to innumerable worthy causes, including the UW.

When we reached out to community sponsors to underwrite our launch event, we also asked for, and received, special launch-year funds to expand our service commitments through the Alternative Spring Break Program, the Dream Project and community-based internships. This Campaign is not just about the UW – it’s about how the UW fulfills its public mission to Washington and the world.

Join me this Friday at Hec Ed to kick this campaign off with an event we’re calling Together. It’s going to be exciting and inspiring and you won’t want to miss it.

And e-mail me at – not too hard to remember – to share the stories of the high impact work that you, your colleagues, or students are doing, because this campaign is about letting people know about what we already do and how much more we can do with additional support. Help us help you – so together we can have a positive impact on our world and on our future.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.