Executive Q&A: The UW’s Ana Mari Cauce

May 13, 2015

Leslie Helm


Ana Mari Cauce was named interim president at the University of Washington after Michael Young abruptly departed for Texas A&M last winter. While her title may suggest impermanence, her devotion to the UW for nearly 30 years speaks to her long-standing dedication to making the UW accessible and exceptional.

After a 28-year career at the University of Washington as a professor, department chair, dean and provost, Ana Mari Cauce (pronounced COW-say) has developed a reputation as one of the most effective and beloved leaders in American higher education. In March, she became interim president of an institution responsible for 80,000 jobs in Washington state and an economic impact of $12.5 billion annually.

EARLY YEARS: My family left Cuba when I was 3. My parents both worked in a shoe factory [in Miami] and never made much more than minimum wage. In high school, I was a checkout girl. I worked 25 to 30 hours a week during my final year in high school.

HARD KNOCKS: I am a resilient person. As my mom would say, there are lots of experiences wherein if they dont kill you, they will make you stronger. But I wouldnt want a child of mine working more than 15 hours a week. As a child psychologist, Im not one who believes you protect children from everything. [At the UW] we want to allow students to take risks, allow them to fail, but with all the resources around them to let them pick themselves back up.

CULTURE: Although my family was poor, I never felt that way. My father had been the minister of education in Cuba and there was never any question that I would go to college. My father used to give us lessons on Cuban history, geography and culture. There was real pride in who we were and where we came from. Knowledge of another culture is a plus.

FIRST GENERATION: I have a strong place in my heart for students from low-income backgrounds. Im proud that the UW is one of a handful of places in this country that offers true excellence but also has a very strong commitment to access. We have more Pell-eligible [low income] students than all the Ivy League schools combined. We change lives. I worked with an immigrant student whose family lived in a car for awhile. She did research in my lab, [received a full scholarship] to a Ph.D. program at Duke and is now a full professor doing public health work with Latina women at [UC] San Diego. A kid from Prosser or Yakima can come to UW and work in a lab with someone who has won a Nobel Prize or is a MacArthur genius. We take kids of modest means and make them masters of the universe.

ON CAMPUS: We want to offer more personal experiences within the incredible richness of a big university. As provost, I spent most Friday afternoons with the Provost Advisory Committee, a group of 15 students [organized by Cauce] to go through the university budget. I also taught a 15-student freshman seminar on leadership as I was making the transition from provost to interim president. We have a leadership initiative that allows students to participate in fireside chats with people like the CEO of Alaska Airlines.

ADMINISTRATION: My first [management] job [at the UW] was as chair of the American Ethnic Studies Department. Students were out protesting the decision because I hadnt taught in the department. [Cauces picture appeared in the campus newspaper, The Daily, behind a big target.] The faculty was divided and there was talk of downgrading the department. My initial response was: Why would I want to do this? But the mess was also affecting the hiring of underrepresented faculty in other areas. The first thing I did was appoint the person the students wanted as chair as my director of undergraduate studies. I visited most of the ethnic studies classes to talk to students and we did a student questionnaire. One of my two or three proudest moments was when the same students who had demonstrated against me gave me a plaque that said Rookie of the Year. By the second year, the department made its first consensus hire in almost a decade. We brought everyone together by reframing the debate around what was good for the students. I feel strongly about building consensus, but you cant be paralyzed if you dont have complete agreement.

INEFFICIENCY: Any university or corporation has some inefficiency, but I dont think universities are any worse than other organizations. As a faculty member, the advantage is that I can pick which 60 or 70 hours a week Im going to work. I can choose to do shopping and mow my lawn on Thursday morning but come to the office on Saturday. By and large, our faculty works very hard and very well. I can count on one hand the ones you would want to [let go].

LARGE CLASSES: We have good findings from our biology classes of what an excellent job [professors] can do with 800 students in a class. These students watch the lectures at home so that when they come into the classroom, they are asking questions. They have clicker technology [which allows multiple-choice responses to a professors questions]. And they have 20 teacher assistants working with them in groups. There is the personalized experience of working together in [smaller] groups.

STEMIFICATION: The decline of the humanities and social sciences is greatly overrated. What were seeing is their stemification. Technology and quantitative analytical thinking is now used in every field. Our students in art and design are doing high-level work on computers. Its important for all of our students to have that. If you are going to be an active participant in a trial, you better know why DNA evidence is so compelling.

EDUCATION: My graduate school advisers adviser, W.E.B. Du Bois, debated in the early 1900s with Booker T. Washington, who wanted young men to learn farming and other trades so they could make incomes to support their families in the post-Jim Crow era. Du Bois wanted to give [students] access to the best ideas in the world by giving them a broad-based education. Its not either/or. People who look down their noses at parents who are concerned about whether their kids can get jobs have never experienced want. But these days, a career is a journey, not a destination. Ive changed jobs every five years in one setting, but whats required of a department chair is different from a dean or provost. The analytical skills and the ability to communicate [remain] core. Im very proud that our engineering and business students take about half their courses in the arts and social sciences. But were also hammering hard in our Legislature for a new computer sciences building so we can double the number of computer science students. And we need a new life sciences building because we need a place to do more modern biology.

GOALS: Our goal is to be the very best public university in the country, not just in academic rankings but in terms of impact on the world. We rank 14th among global universities [ahead of Yale, where Cauce earned her doctorate], but, more important, we rank first in best bang for the buck and sixth in social mobility. We brought in $1.5 billion in research money last year. Last night, I was watching a PBS documentary on cancer and two of the five advances they talked about came from the UW. Thats impact. Addressing our problems, whether its the rise of inequality or our environmental messes, requires true interdisciplinarity. The comprehensiveness of this university allows us to do this. So our goal is to be number one in impact on our students lives, on our region and in the world.

INNOVATION: We can always be better; Im driven that way. In terms of commercialization, its not just about making money for the UW; its about taking our ideas and moving them out into the world so our research will make an impact on the world. We have a vice provost for innovation who can catalyze change. Its about bringing together a group of faculty or students who want to do something and giving them support. What people are willing to do for minimal resources is pretty amazing. Once you build that leading edge, everyone will want to get on board. With baby boomers aging, in the next 10 years, 30 to 40 percent of our faculty will turn over. Its a wonderful opportunity to introduce new ways of doing things.

COMPETITIVENESS: When I interviewed here [in the mid-1980s], it was a crystal-clear day. Mount Rainier was as big as could be. It was like, Wow, this is a place where you can dream big. UCLA would have offered me quite a bit more money, but I was in my 20s and idealistic. And I could buy a nice one-bedroom house for $130,000. You cant do that anymore. I worry that it will be very, very hard to keep this level of access and excellence without state reinvestment.

STATE: Legislators are paying more attention to higher education. There are new, younger members who arent thinking, I couldve worked my way through college. They are very aware that you cant. There also is a greater understanding that where there are vibrant economic centers, there is a vibrant university. Maintaining this strong university is absolutely important to the economic vitality of this entire state. While our red brick is primarily in the Puget Sound [region], we have tendrils all across the state. We have to invest in relationship building with the Legislature. I think its hard to do that when [a president is] here for short periods of time. We are hard to love. In the book The Boys in the Boat, we were the underdogs against the Ivy League schools and everyone rooted for us. But in Washingtons public university environment, its a delicate dance. While some people say we are not aggressive enough [in promoting the UW cause], I can give you a list of other people who say we are arrogant.

MEDICAL SCHOOL: If the [UW] medical school in Spokane is defunded, it will set medical education back 10 years in eastern Washington. Even if all the tailwinds are with Washington State University, they will not have a practicing doctor coming out of their [proposed] school for a decade. Having the potential for our school to close down will have severe consequences for eastern Washington at precisely that time when we need more doctors. We need to reframe this conversation. Its not about UW vs. WSU. Its about whats good for eastern Washington. When it comes to practically everything except the Apple Cup, whats good for WSU is good for us. In the Bay Area, when UCBerkeley went through its financial crisis, John Hennessy, the president of Stanford, spoke out in favor of funding Berkeley because he knew that having another great university was good for both. Having a strong WSU is good for us and its good for the state. This is not about not wanting WSU to become strong and grow. Its about having a top-ranked medical school in exactly those areas where we need doctors: family medicine, primary care and rural medicine. Its about keeping that program strong and expanding it. Its the most cost-effective program in the country. Doing anything to endanger that is just plain wrong. Its bad for the state and its bad for the people of eastern Washington.

UNIVERSITY DISTRICT: This is where our students live and our faculty spends time. We are very invested in creating vitality in the U District but also maintaining affordability and that funky character. How do you do that? It does require a group effort. We have a group that includes folks from the city, the College of Built Environments and the College of the Environment. Someone from the Department of History looked at how Silicon Valley grew. They are really coming together to think about how we take this theory and make it come alive.