Ana Mari Cauce has spent nearly all her professional life at the University of Washington, and many faculty and staff hope she’ll become its permanent president. If she does, she’ll be one of few college presidents chosen from the inside.

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It was after 6 p.m. on a September evening, and the lights were out on the third floor of Gerberding Hall on the University of Washington campus. Still, Ph.D. student Alice Popejoy had a hunch that Ana Mari Cauce, the interim president, might still be at work.

Pushing her baby stroller through the swinging doors, Popejoy, a student government leader, found Cauce sitting alone, reading, in one of the purple visitor’s chairs. Cauce, delighted, rose to greet Popejoy and her 2-month-old daughter.

Cauce, 59, has spent nearly all of her professional life at the UW. She has earned a reputation as warmhearted and approachable, a workaholic who never stops thinking about the university and a decisive leader who’s not afraid to take risks.

Six months after she was tapped as interim president, there appears to be widespread support among students, faculty and staff to remove the word “interim” from her title.

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If chosen, she’d be the first woman to hold the permanent job.

She also would become that rarest of choices to lead a major American university: A president selected from the inside.

Asked to name a single president of a major U.S. university who was promoted from the ranks, Judith Block McLaughlin — chair of the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents and a scholar of the college presidential search for 32 years — drew a blank.

Internal candidates hardly ever get the job.

“Their warts are known, they’ve had to make difficult decisions … their enemies are right there on campus,” Block McLaughlin said.

To a remarkable degree, Cauce seems to have avoided those pitfalls. Even those who have disagreed with her say they admire her candor and willingness to collaborate.

As provost, she managed the university’s $6 billion budget, making tough decisions about which programs would get funding and which would not, said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who also teaches at the UW’s School of Public Health. “And despite having made the tough decisions, she has incredible depth of support across different sectors of the university.”

Cauce’s former boss, Michael Young, left in February to take a higher-paying job at Texas A&M University after serving as president of the UW for just four years. His abrupt departure left many longing for a president who won’t use the job as a steppingstone to a more prestigious and higher-paying position.

Pollet and many others say Cauce fits that description to a T.

Nevertheless, the UW is spending more than $160,000 to conduct a nationwide search for its next leader. A 28-member committee will spend this fall and winter looking for a superstar who can raise private donations, wring money from a tightfisted Legislature and change the perception that the UW is an arrogant, elitist institution.

“The thing that is perplexing to many of us who are here is, why are the regents bothering to do a search?” asked Kate O’Neill, a UW law professor and former chair of the Faculty Senate. “You’ve got a supremely good, popular candidate right under your nose.”

Still, O’Neill understands the political need to go through the process. “In some ways, if Ana Mari ends up with the job after that search, it’s better for the university,” she said.

Cauce won’t say if she’s a candidate, but that might be one of the worst-kept secrets on the Seattle campus.

“I’m spending my time being president, and not running for any position,” Cauce said. “The search is in the confidential and silent phase, and let it be confidential and silent.”

“One of us”

Born in Havana, Cuba, Cauce grew up in Miami after her family fled the island nation during the Cuban revolution. (Her first name, Ana Mari, rhymes with “calamari”; Cauce is pronounced “cow-say.”)

Three decades after she came to Seattle, she’s got the Northwestern lifestyle down pat.

She and her spouse, Susan Joslyn, have a modest home near Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School, and a second home in Friday Harbor. They’re veterans of the ferry system, hikes in the woods and walks on the beach. She drives an unflashy car — a Honda CRV — and friends say it’s often a mess inside.

A solidly built woman with short black hair turning to gray, Cauce has a pleasing, melodic voice and a ready smile. She posts almost daily on Facebook — a string of commentary that often turns into a nuanced discussion among Facebook friends about the big issues surrounding higher education.

She’s also written about the joys of mowing her lawn — and posted dozens of pictures of Friday Harbor sunsets. Whether she’s posing with Husky mascot Dubs or greeting Chinese President Xi Jinping during a formal ceremony at Microsoft, she always looks like she’s having a good time.

Her demeanor is informal — if anything, she is “perhaps a bit short on gravitas,” Ed Lazowska, UW computer-science professor, said in an email. But not because she doesn’t have it in her. “It’s because she rose up through the ranks and wanted to continue to be ‘one of us’ in every way,” he wrote.

Cauce herself acknowledges that she doesn’t fit the model of a modern college leader — formal, polished, dressed in a suit. “I’m not a president out of central casting, let’s put it that way,” she said.

She’s found, as interim president, that she has to “work harder to have people be genuine with me,” and tries to meet people on their own turf. Last year, when a group of students invited her to their residence hall to play a UW-inspired version of Jeopardy, she took them up on it.

“She’s a psychologist, and I think part of her profession is an ability to listen, to not be judgmental,” said Tom Daniel, a biology professor and close friend who officiated at Cauce’s wedding.

Both he and Cauce were department chairs at the same time in the early 2000s, and he jokingly calls her the “chairapist” because of her skill at helping other leaders work with the faculty to solve problems.

Still, she’s clashed at times with others at the UW.

Recently, she disappointed some professors by sending an open letter expressing grave reservations about a move under way to unionize the faculty.

Some saw her response as typical of a university governed by a board of regents whose members largely represent the corporate world.

“There’s a deep level of anti-union animus at the UW, and if we’re going to fix that, it’s going to require real leadership,” said Garrett Shishido Strain, a UW student activist. “I don’t think she’ll seriously challenge the corporatization of the university unless pushed.”

Shishido Strain gives Cauce credit for being willing to talk with student activists, “but we’re still waiting for proof and action,” he said. For example, he is disappointed that the UW hasn’t committed to bumping student pay to $15 an hour on the timeline that the city’s new wage law requires. (As a state agency, the UW says it falls into a gray area of the law.)

And she hasn’t addressed complaints from the UW’s custodial staff about overwork and unfair disciplinary actions, said Paula Lukaszek, a UW plumber and president of Washington Federation of State Employees Local 1488.

But Lukaszek gives Cauce credit for meeting with blue-collar workers — something that her predecessors, Young and Mark Emmert, did not do.

Committed to diversity

A little over a month after she became interim president, Cauce stood at a lectern in Intellectual House, the Native American longhouse, and spoke powerfully and emotionally about racism and homophobia to 350 students, faculty and staff.

She is no stranger to either.

Growing up, relatives told her she was lucky to be a light-skinned Cuban; her aunt called it “a gift from God.” Later, when she came out about her sexuality, her mother all but disowned her.

Cauce says she chose that moment to speak about racism because she was following the lead of the students — the thousands who marched in a Black Lives Matter protest through campus in February. Cauce said it was likely the largest protest the UW had seen since the 1970s.

Because so many communities in the U.S. are racially segregated, the college campus is often the most diverse setting a student has ever encountered, and that makes it the right place to address racism, she said.

For her, a commitment to diversity is “integral to the success of the university, and completely part of the mission of the university,” said Adam Sherman, director of policy analysis and assessment at the UW’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, who got to know Cauce while he was a student leader.

Cauce believes diversity creates excellence because people come up with better solutions when different perspectives are at the table.

Indeed, she says, one of the things that has kept her at the UW for 29 years is “the fact that it really is one of a handful of universities that really does access and excellence well … We put more of our own money into financial aid than any other institution in the state.”

Changing the composition of the faculty is a particular interest of Cauce’s; as at most universities, the UW faculty is overwhelmingly white and male.

In the coming years, the baby-boom generation of professors will retire. Cauce sees a unique opportunity for the next president to work with hiring committees to change the mix.

Leaving her mark

Whether she becomes its permanent leader or not, Cauce seems determined to leave her mark.

In addition to launching the race and equity project she announced during her speech at Intellectual House, she is committed to providing more child care near campus.

Cauce and interim provost Jerry Baldasty also are restructuring the university’s administration to make it more efficient, a move that is sure to make some administrators unhappy.

Risky, to shake up the staff when you’re a temporary president and also candidate for the job? Perhaps.

The president’s job also requires different skills than the ones needed to run the university day-to-day, as Cauce has done as provost.

Asked how she would address the perception that the UW is arrogant, Cauce paused for a long time before giving her answer.

The fix, she says, will have to come by teaching people that the UW is “elite but not elitist” — that about a third of the UW’s in-state undergrads are first-generation students, for example.

“At the end of the day, it’s not changing who we are, it’s making the kinds of human contacts that make it clear who we are,” she said.

Can this most casual of women be a strong president of a major university? Lazowska, the computer-science professor, thinks she can.

The day after she was named interim president, Cauce gave a town hall address to the faculty, one that had been scheduled months in advance. She was still speaking as the provost, but she was soon to wear the mantle of president.

Here’s what Lazowska heard that day in February:

“Every bit of it was a president speaking. She flipped a switch. She was still genuine, she still spoke from experience, she still related to us, but, without being the least bit stuffy, she was 100 percent presidential.”