UW News

August 5, 2004

A presidential Q&A: Emmert talks about funding, his role, relations off campus

University Week editor Nancy Wick recently sat down with new UW President Mark Emmert. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: What is your assessment of the UW’s current situation?

A: The University of Washington, as everyone at the UW knows, is an extraordinarily accomplished institution. It has a faculty and staff and student body that compare favorably to virtually any public institution in the country. Simply put, it is a great university.

On the other hand, it’s also clear that the continuous string of budget cuts, especially relative to our competitors around the country, has taken its toll. There are many vacant positions, there’s a shortage of faculty and staff in a variety of areas. There are facility and infrastructure issues that need to be addressed. All of these are signs of a university that has been doing what it has to do to get by under tight budgetary constraints. So one of the obvious things that must occur is that I, and everyone that we work with, need to find solutions to some of these budgetary problems.

Q: How do you see the future of state funding?

A: For nearly all public universities, the states have been reducing their investments in higher education for quite some time, and in Washington this has been as acute as any place in the country. I don’t see under the current budgetary circumstances in the state any dramatic change for the next few years unless we can make significant improvements in a number of arenas.

The good news, though, is that all three candidates for governor have made very clear their understanding of the critical role of higher education in general and this university in particular in driving the state’s economy. The problem of access to four-year education is also well recognized. So everybody sees the problems. We just have to move that understanding into action and convert it into more support for the UW in every way that we can.

Q: If I-884 were to pass, what kind of ramifications might it have for the University?

A: You know, under state law, I, along with all other state employees cannot use state resources (including this paper) to advocate for or against ballot propositions. However, we can describe potential impacts on the University. Since I-884 directs additional resources to higher education, the University would likely see an increase in funding were the measure to pass. According to the Initiative, some of that funding would be directed to support increased enrollments and financial aid, some would be earmarked for research, and some would be available for the University to meet a variety of other needs.

Q: What about the campaign? Is private funding on track?

A: Despite the downturn of last year, the campaign is in terrific shape. We’re going to have a huge kickoff event Oct. 15 to publicly announce what is now one of the worst kept secrets in Washington — which is that we’re launching a very large campaign. It will have a very significant impact on the University going forward. As I said, we’ve got to maximize all the resources available to our faculty and staff, and private philanthropy and corporate support are clearly key among them.

Q: What are you doing to orient yourself?

A: During these first few months I’m learning as much as I can about the University and its people. And I’m trying to do that in as orderly a way as possible. So I’m just beginning to work my way through the schools and colleges and the key administrative structures of the University and also meeting with a strategic array of people outside the University — friends and supporters and opinion leaders in Seattle and all across the state.

What I would like to have in the very near future is a pretty clear understanding of the dynamics inside and outside the University that will allow us together, the whole University community, to craft a clear action agenda for advancing the University. We’re already doing that in some focused ways around the tri-campus issue.

Q: How do you see your role as president?

A: The president’s role is to work with the faculty, staff and students to be the lead enabler, to help them first and foremost to have the things they need to be successful. Some of those resources are financial. Some of them aren’t. I approach this first by recognizing that I don’t deliver any of the goods that count in the University. I’m not an active researcher any longer. I’m not a teacher. I do a little bit of both but I just dabble in it because I enjoy it. The mission of our University is served directly by our faculty and staff. The administration’s job is to shape the University in such a way that it supports the work of the faculty and staff.

The president is also the lead convener of the University community to shape a common vision for where we want to go, to provide leadership in the communication of that vision and rally support around that vision — both internally and externally. Closely related to that, the president sets the tone for the University in a variety of ways — the way it interacts with the people of the state, the way it values the people of the University, the way it approaches ethical issues. Finally, the president is often called upon to be the person who makes decisions about campuswide issues and addresses campuswide problems.

Q: How will you communicate with your constituencies?

A: I think that’s one of the biggest challenges facing the leader of a university of this size and scale: How do you get to know folks, and how do they get to know you, so that you have a relationship with them that they feel good about? My preference is to do it in face-to-face social interaction, preferably informally. Unfortunately, you just can’t meet all 33,000 people who are on the payroll, so I’ll use all the communication vehicles I can. I’ll use formal addresses; I’ll use informal social interactions; I’ll use electronic communications. I’ll use whatever I can to successfully reach folks.

Q: Your dissertation dealt with the question of how do you get people committed to an organization. Given the continual salary problems here, do you have any answers?

A: First of all you fix that problem, and you make sure people believe we are working earnestly and vigorously on their behalf. When it comes to attachment and commitment to organizations, universities have a significant advantage in that they’re these self-contained communities and most people feel more a part of a university community than they do of a corporate setting. Moreover, most members of a university community feel very good about what they are doing; about the work of the University.

Q: University staff often feel undervalued compared to faculty. Any thoughts about that?

A: It’s a huge problem in all of higher education. There’s this wonderful fellow, Clark Kerr, who headed the University of California for a long time, he came up with a not-flattering but really apt descriptor. He called the staff the “un-faculty.” And what he meant was, we know them more by what they’re not than by what they are. And I think he was painfully accurate. We need to try to turn that around because the role of the staff in running any university, but especially a research-intensive university, is so central to everything we do. The place doesn’t run otherwise. So we need to work hard to recognize that, to honor the work of our staff, to communicate that this is something we as a University care about. Will that erase the perceived and sometimes real social distance between the faculty and staff? Not entirely. But we should do everything we can to diminish it, and make staff understand how much they’re valued.

Q: How do you see the UW’s relationship with the larger community, especially here in the U District?

A: It’s clear that at least in certain quarters of the community the perception is that the University is aloof, elitist, not engaged, unconcerned about their issues. And we need to address that head-on and demonstrate by our actions — not just our words — that we’re part of this community. So I’ll spend a lot of my time interacting with the community leadership and the media to see what we can do to resolve some of those problems. We’re always going to have points of disagreement, but if we can sit down with people, deal with problems aggressively and frankly, make them understand that we’re as serious as they are about resolution, then I think that will help a great deal.

Q: What about the media?

A: The same applies to the media as to the community. They need to see us as people who are going to deal with them in a very forthright fashion. We need to build some confidence in them that we’re going to do the right things, and you can’t just say that; you have to demonstrate it by your actions over time. We have to understand that their job is not to be the cheerleaders for the University of Washington. They’re reporters and they’re going to report the facts. When we make mistakes, as we surely will, I fully expect them to report it objectively and honestly. And we’ll say, yeah we made a mistake. But we’re going to fix it and move on.

What we can’t have happen is for those issues to overwhelm the enormous body of good work that is being produced here. At the same time that we had the billing issues at the medical center, for example, the hospital rose to number nine in America, passing Stanford, Michigan and Penn. Good news like that gets washed away when there are problems in the news. So first of all you’ve got to do everything you can to not have problems. But if we do, we need to address them as aggressively as possible. Finally, we have to communicate very forthrightly and frankly with the media and try to regain their trust. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to take time.

Q: Do you plan to teach?

A: I hope to. But, what I’ve found in the past is that I can’t teach whole classes simply because my schedule doesn’t allow it and I wind up shortchanging the students. What I prefer to do is find ways to guest-lecture in classes where I have something interesting to say. I like to find ways to go into classes and interact with students on their turf.

Q: What’s the greatest satisfaction for you in holding a job like this?

A: What universities do, more than any other organized activity that I know, is they allow people, often of exceptional talent, to perform at the highest levels possible. And that’s what I enjoy the most — watching a scholar produce seminal scholarly work, whether it’s in the performing arts or in physics or in medicine. Seeing a student achieve something they never thought possible. We provide an environment within which individuals can reach the pinnacle of their discipline and create intriguing new ways of knowing the world around us. That’s what we do that other places don’t do. That’s our real contribution to society. And that’s great fun.

Q: You’ve said this is your last stop. Are you serious about that? Would you stay here 10 or 12 years?

A: Oh, yeah. I’ve always thought that the most satisfying thing would be to have a long tenure where you can see the changes you helped implement take hold. The other interesting thing about universities is that the change that takes place here takes time. It’s four or five years before you see anything that’s going to be long-lasting and often 10 years before you really know what your long-term impact was. Now the reality is that people get 10 years into these jobs and their utility to the University may diminish. If I ever thought my usefulness to the University was diminishing, I would change paths. But I would hope that I could stay vitally, vibrantly engaged for the rest of my career.