UW News

December 29, 2014

William P. Gerberding, 27th president of the University of Washington, dies at 85

UW News

William P. Gerberding.

William P. Gerberding.U. of Washington

William P. Gerberding, the 27th and longest-serving president of the University of Washington, died Saturday. He was 85.

Gerberding, who assumed the presidency in 1979 and retired in 1995, is credited for boosting the university into national prominence, navigating it through potentially devastating budget crises and significantly increasing private financial support.

“We are all deeply saddened by this news. Our heartfelt sympathies go to Ruth and the rest of the Gerberding family,” UW President Michael K. Young said. “Bill left an indelible imprint on the university. There was no better match between his steadfast quest for excellence and a university of this caliber striving to achieve its best every day. He was relentless in pursuing it at every turn, and the results were nothing short of magnificent. He was a great leader, and I am glad I got the chance to know him. He will long be remembered.”

Born on Sept. 9, 1929, in Fargo, North Dakota, Gerberding earned a B.A. from Macalester College in 1951, and went on to receive an M.A. in 1956 and a Ph.D. in 1959 from the University of Chicago. He served as a professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, and then at UCLA before becoming vice president of academic affairs at Occidental College in 1972. In 1975, he became vice chancellor at UCLA, and in 1978 moved on to become chancellor at the University of Illinois.

Lured to the UW after a year and a half in Illinois, Gerberding arrived amid a national mood he described as “a period of confusion, uncertainty, a certain amount of cynicism and a good deal of pessimism and gloom” in his inaugural address in 1980. But he exuded confidence based on the idea that “no great university has ever perished.”

Memorial service

A memorial celebration of William P. Gerberding’s life will be held at 7 p.m. Jan. 14 at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus.

This assurance would be tested during the first decade of his tenure as federal and state budget cuts led to significant faculty and staff cuts and threatened many programs.

“The question before the people and political leadership of this state is not whether they want a good state university in Seattle,” Gerberding said in 1984. “They already have that and more. … The question is whether they want a first-rate university here.”

With morale exceedingly low, Gerberding managed to maintain an amiable relationship with faculty and staff while challenging the state to support the university’s effort to compete on a national level. Referring to the financial challenges of the time, Faculty Senate Chair Tad Blalock said of the faculty’s relationship with the administration in 1985, “We share a common task in trying harder than ever to convince the public and our political leaders that we are a far better university than they have any right to expect on the basis of the support we are receiving.”

During times of financial peril, Gerberding counted as a victory the fact that the state Legislature in 1985 allocated $8.3 million to reduce “critical market disparities” in teaching disciplines, and recognized faculty salaries should be considered in relation to comparable institutions across the country, such as UCLA, Berkeley, North Carolina, Michigan and other major public institutions.

But by 1986, the financial strain and culmination of difficult decisions were beginning to erode some of the hope.

“You can’t ruin a splendid university in five or six years,” Gerberding said. “I don’t know how many years it would take, but we’re on our way.”

While continuing to seek public support, Gerberding turned to the private sector in search for financial stability and announced in November 1989 a campaign to raise $250 million – the first effort of its kind at the UW.

“With the help of a lot of wonderfully supportive and generous people in the volunteer community, we managed to get it up and going,” Gerberding told Columns magazine in 1995. “We are right in the top five all the time among public universities in private fundraising.”

“I think the fact that the university got through the very difficult times in the 1980s in reasonably good shape is something that I’m most proud of,” Gerberding told Columns. “I suppose the thing I’m most likely to be remembered for is the increase in private support, which has been quite dramatic and which we’ve worked hard at. I think it was an essential new aspect of the university’s life.”

In the same interview, Gerberding explained the focus on recruiting and retaining quality faculty was a prerequisite for developing excellence as a university.

“If you don’t have a great faculty, you’re just not in that game,” he said. “So you have to develop or be in the process of developing a great faculty. Then you need students that challenge that faculty.”

Under Gerberding’s tenure, about 125,000 students graduated from the UW, four Nobel Prizes were awarded to faculty; several new buildings were constructed; and a record-breaking, $284-million fundraising effort kicked off a new era of private support.

“Bill Gerberding cared deeply about our university and provided extraordinary leadership,” former UW Regent Bill Gates Sr. said. “Incidentally, his ever-present wit was a delight. We will miss him greatly.”