Office of the Provost

October 11, 2012

Changes ahead in 2012-2013

Dear Colleagues:

The recent stretch of summer-like weather makes it hard to believe this, my first academic year in the Provost’s role, is already in full swing.  I look forward to getting the hang of the full cycle’s ebbs and flows.

While the past few years have been tumultuous for higher education and some economic uncertainty remains, I believe this university has done a remarkable job of weathering the storm.  As we look to the immediate future, figuring out ways to provide much needed raises and ending reliance on double-digit tuition increases will be our primary challenges—we cannot ask our faculty, staff and students to stretch further.

Consequently, we’ll continue to place great emphasis on being strategic and on efficiency and collaboration.  We must coordinate our educational programs effectively and capitalize on shared infrastructure.  At the same time, we must continue to provide seed funding for innovation related to teaching, research, service and support functions—for innovation is our lifeblood.

The rate of change in higher education seems to be accelerating, therefore, presenting real challenges for universities everywhere.  Some opportunities, such as jumping into the massive open online course (MOOC) universe via Coursera, require us to respond rapidly.  The Coursera experiment has been challenging because of what some call the “hype-cycle” (tremendous media buzz that quickly polarizes opinion and lessens our ability to engage in sustained, dispassionate dialogue).  Quite honestly, I didn’t expect the tremendous media reaction to free and/or online courses, given that the UW has provided free classes for more than a decade and offers master degrees and certificate programs online.

The decision to partner with Coursera was based on my belief that it was better for the UW, through its Seattle campus, to be on the inside trying to figure out the world of MOOCs and adding quality, rather than not being involved at all.  It seemed useful to collaborate with our peer universities such as Stanford, Princeton and Michigan in an innovative experiment to showcase the world-class resources we have here.

What got lost in the “hype-cycle” around Coursera was:

  • Our agreement with Coursera is open and non-binding; we have the latitude to sign on with a competitor, to go it alone, or to get out altogether, if and when we want;
  • Students do not get UW credit for completing Coursera courses offered by the UW, although some media outlets reported they would; and
  • The UW is not investing any state funds or tuition into MOOCs, but rather into developing accompanying, self-sustaining online courses for UW credit that it had been offering already with full approval and consent of our departments, colleges, schools, faculty committees and governance structure.

What’s next?  The safest bet is to expect the unexpected.  As change arises, I will consult as widely as I can, given time pressures, fully respecting joint governance with faculty and working with student governance.  I will also strive to be as transparent as possible—trying to better anticipate the “buzz.”

Significant decisions ahead include the selection of new deans in Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Nursing and the Graduate School, as well as a new Chancellor at UW Bothell.  These are all key positions, and the choices we make will play no small role in shaping our future.  I urge you to get involved in the process, attend candidate presentations and send your feedback to search committee chairs, and to me.

I remember my first autumn quarter on campus in 1986—a land that seemed so distant from my Havana/Miami roots.  What I first noticed that autumn was the remarkable energy, intelligence and warmth of faculty, staff and students.  Each autumn, in the land that I now call home, I see that resurgence all over again and consider myself fortunate to work with all of you at this wonderful university.  We do live in interesting times, but with colleagues like you it’s not a curse, but something I look forward to.


Ana Mari Cauce
Provost and Executive Vice President