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Additional Q&A from the Annual President’s Address

Last week, I had the pleasure of delivering my Annual President’s Address. And while the pandemic precluded an in-person gathering, I’m grateful to everyone who watched the livestream or viewed the recording. You can also read the full text of the address.

One part of this annual tradition that I look forward to is my opportunity to address questions from members of our community. Thank you to everyone who sent in questions this year. I didn’t have time to respond to all of them during the event, so I wanted to address a few of the topics that we didn’t get to.

One questioner asked, “Why does UW continue to purchase from and invest in private prison companies, when it claims to value equity and racial justice?”

I recognize that the use of correctional industries is a fraught and complex issue. As I emphasized in my address, there is no question that systemic racism has affected the way in which our criminal justice system has operated, resulting in mass incarceration that has disproportionately affected BIPOC communities. I fully support our students, faculty, and staff who are working to correct these longstanding injustices.

When it comes to employment in prison, the answers are more complicated, and I’ve talked with many knowledgeable people about the issue, including those with first-hand experience who support the option of employment for incarcerated people because it both provides them a positive option for how to spend their time while incarcerated and a venue for developing skills for employment when their prison terms are over. I do believe in the positive value of honest labor. However, I also believe that there should be multiple options for employment, as well as more options for continued education. I also believe that the incarcerated deserve to be paid fairly for their labor and that their labor should never be forced or coerced.

In working toward these goals, which we share, it is important to recognize that Correctional Industries (CI) is not a private company. I do not believe our best strategy for seeking change is through boycotting its products, a strategy which has proven effective with private companies. CI is part of our own state government and subject to the change by our state legislators whom we elect. As such, we have the opportunity to advance productive policy changes through political advocacy and collaboration. Indeed, if we believe what is happening is wrong, we have the obligation to do so since our own tax dollars support these practices. As an individual citizen, I have already contacted some of our state legislators about this issue, and I am fully open and willing to work with others who are looking to create more equitable practices within our criminal justice and prison systems that will lead to the true rehabilitation, not just punishment, of those incarcerated. This includes creating a broader range of options for the incarcerated to acquire job skills, and ensuring that they are paid at least state minimum wage for their voluntary labor.

I am also open and willing to testify, in my position as President of the UW, to the fact that the way that many states, including our own, operate CI has resulted in universities like ours, having no other viable options for purchasing dorm furniture, since CI has essentially become a monopoly in this area. Indeed, last time we purchased dorm furniture, our first choice was not CI, but that company went out of business before they could sign a contract with us. This is an important issue and I believe we can work together to enact meaningful change.

On the question of investments, we do not have direct investments in any of the private prison corporations identified by the national divestment movement and do not intend to invest in those corporations. With regards to the UW’s overall investment portfolio, including positions in funds, and the use of divestment as a strategy for social action, that is a broader question that the Regents will take up as part of discussions on investment policy in general. The Board of Regents has a process to consider any requests to divest from individual companies or entire sectors.

Another questioner wrote, “While many UW employees are worried about job security, we pay millions of dollars to the UW’s highest paid athletics coaches. Will you commit to significantly cutting extremely bloated athletics salaries, and diverting those critical funds into saving the jobs of less-privileged staff and faculty whose jobs are vulnerable?”

The salaries of our athletic coaches are paid for by the revenues that are generated by our athletic teams through TV contracts, ticket purchases, donor dollars and other sources that cannot be used to pay for staff or faculty in other departments. They are not paid for by state funds or tuition dollars.

I appreciate the way sports brings our community together. As a high school athlete myself, I also appreciate how, through sports, students can learn important skills on and off the field, including discipline, time management, how to lose with grace, and how to learn from losses. I am extremely proud of our Husky Athletics leadership and their values. Their priority is our students’ development as complete people. It’s no accident that 100% of our eligible students in football and basketball have registered to vote, or that our student-athletes consistently rank at the top of the Pac-12 for their GPAs. The leadership of UW Athletics through this challenging time, which has included voluntary pay cuts for the highest paid staff, has been exemplary.

I also understand people’s frustration with the emphasis society places on sports and on the “celebrity” culture more generally, whether it be star athletes, star coaches, or star movie stars. I wish our nation celebrated academic achievements with the same enthusiasm. I would love to see Husky Stadium sold out for a lecture by one of our top faculty members, or the Seattle or New York Times carry daily multi-page sections on the latest developments in higher education and research. But, ultimately the prominence of sports and the amount of money they generate reflects where the public at large is willing to spend its time and dollars.

Several people wrote in to ask: “When will libraries reopen and how can we get access to physical materials from the library?”

Our libraries’ leaders are carefully monitoring guidance by our state’s elected officials and public health experts as they determine when it will be safe to reopen the physical branches on our three campuses. Library staff are working remotely (as are many students and faculty) to provide support and are available around the clock for chat services, electronic interlibrary loans, research and writing consultations and online workshops.

Physical materials can be checked out through a no contact pick-up service on each campus, available between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays.

You can find more information about the phased reopening of the libraries in this chart.

And finally, several people wrote in about parking, asking, “Why did the UW cancel free parking for UW employees who have to go to work in person?”

Our self-sustaining units, including Transportation Services, are experiencing significant revenue losses because fewer students and employees are using them. The great majority of Transportation Services’ budget goes to employee salaries and benefits, and parking fees help to ensure that those employees continue to receive a paycheck.

The decision to temporarily suspend paid parking at the height of the pandemic was made after careful consideration of the conditions at the time and the availability of alternate means of transport. All local transit agencies now require face coverings and have implemented other safety measures like physical distancing within the buses and limiting passenger capacity to reduce the spread of the virus. They are also rebuilding their service routes to accommodate rider demand to make them more viable for commuting. Of course, we will continue to monitor the situation closely and reevaluate our plans as necessary and appropriate.

I recognize that that each individual’s transportation circumstances are different and more difficult for some than others. You can find information about measures we’ve taken to provide additional support for those who have to be on-site and transportation staff are available to help figure out the best transit options for those whose regular routes have changed.