New University of Washington president Ana Mari Cauce is an inspired insider selection, but her biggest challenge may be off campus, uniting the state’s higher-education system around mutual interests.
AS Ana Mari Cauce opened her tenure as president of the University of Washington with a rousing speech, you could see how deeply she “bleeds purple.” Resplendent in a Husky-purple suit, Cauce read off an impressively long list of the gee-whiz innovations created at the university and an equally impressive list of her former students who’ve gone on to great things.
The UW Board of Regents made an excellent decision to buck the higher-education trend to reach within for their next leader, elevating Cauce over 58 other candidates. She climbed through the university’s ranks for the past 29 years, from associate professor researching mental-health interventions for at-risk youths to interim president last year. She is a barrier breaker: the UW’s first permanent female president, its first Latino president and its first openly gay president.
It is difficult to find anyone with a negative critique of her intellect, character or leadership style. She is refreshingly genuine, giving a special shout-out in her speech to the “nerds with a proud N, and geeks with a capital G. If you see yourself as part of that, you’re part of my tribe. Geek is the new chic.”
Cauce inherits a healthy university. It is one of the top public universities in the world, according to recent rankings. Its endowment is at an all-time high of $2.8 billion. A historic investment by the state Legislature actually dropped tuition at the UW by 15 percent over the next two years, and its current freshman class is the biggest in history.
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Cauce, the ultimate UW insider, knows the challenge of maintaining success as well as anyone. She must retain a faculty restless about pay and considering unionization, while easing student-debt burdens by ensuring that students can graduate on time.
But her biggest challenge might be off campus. The state needs an unequivocal leader on higher education, from trade school to medical school, uniting institutions over mutual interests of excellence and access to higher learning for all of our state’s students. A clear voice for the state’s higher-education system is needed in Olympia and Washington, D.C.
The late Washington State University president Elson Floyd ably filled that role as the UW has churned through four in five years, and as the state’s flagship university often played poorly with others. Floyd also was a committed advocate of a seamless state education system starting with quality early learning of our youngest residents.
Cauce has the presence and standing to fill that role now.