Phyllis Wise moves up from the No. 2 position at a critical time for the university. Known for her modest demeanor, Wise is taking another big step in a career full of them.

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One of the university’s deans was on the phone. A rising star in her department was being heavily recruited by another school. Could she count on Phyllis Wise to do whatever it took to get this faculty member to remain at the University of Washington — a bump in salary, better equipment, more funding for graduate-student assistance?

“Absolutely,” Wise recounted later. “We cannot lose our best people.”

Phyllis Wise becomes interim president of the UW on Friday, a time when the school, and higher education in general, faces tectonic shifts in the way it is funded and mounting pressure to change.

The UW has seen its core state funding cut by $115 million in the last 15 months, and another round of cuts is in the works. Tuition has gone up by 28 percent in two years and is likely to go higher. Faculty salaries are frozen. Other universities are trying to raid the school’s best professors.

In another era, the interim-president post might have been a seat-warmer until a new president was appointed. But not this time.

“There are some things that can’t wait for a new president,” Wise said. “I really think of myself as president for an interim period of time, and not the interim president — and I think there’s a difference.”

Wise, 65, steps into a job very unlike the one she held for five years in the UW’s No. 2 leadership position. As provost, she was in charge of the school’s annual budget, and served as its chief academic officer, with all of the university’s deans reporting to her.

But as president, most of her time will involve wringing checks from big donors, representing the UW before the Legislature, and lobbying for legislative changes to allow the university flexibility to raise more money.

Not another Emmert

A New York native and daughter of highly educated Chinese immigrants, she will be the first woman, and first Asian American, to serve in the president’s post. She says she is not interested in becoming the university’s permanent president. A UW search panel hopes to find a replacement by the fall of 2011.

By training, she is a physiologist who spent many years working in the lab, investigating the role of estrogen on brain functions in postmenopausal women.

But beginning in 2002, when she became dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Davis, her role has been as an administrator — posts, she says, that she came to fill almost by accident.

“If anything, I’ve been the person who’s been put into positions that I’m not totally qualified for — where I feel that I have to run to be able to meet the expectations of people, including my own expectations of myself,” she said.

Wise’s tendency to express her vulnerabilities sets her apart from her charismatic, self-assured predecessor, Mark Emmert, said Ana Mari Cauce, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of psychology.

Wise isn’t trying to be another Emmert, but “really is being herself,” Cauce said, and she “is very authentic.”

The difference in her style might be helpful to the university in the Legislature, Cauce said, where Emmert’s lobbying efforts in recent years had stalled, and some legislators were growing unhappy with his high salary. (Wise will make $621,000, which includes a salary of $471,000 and deferred compensation of $150,000. It’s about 30 percent less than Emmert’s salary.)

State Sen. Ed Murray, who met with Wise recently, said he was impressed by how forcefully she described her concern that the school’s mission and reputation “is going to fall apart” if it does not get more support from Olympia.

“She comes across as intelligent, strong and compassionate, and I think that combination of styles will sell well in Olympia,” said Murray, a Seattle Democrat.

One of Wise’s outside roles has been as chairwoman of the investment committee of the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle environmental foundation. As a physiologist, Wise knew little about investments, but she quickly mastered the right amount of information needed to do the job well, said Denis Hayes, president and CEO of the foundation.

Hayes said Wise is a good listener and a hard worker; he would sometimes get e-mail from her at 3 in the morning.

As a fundraiser, she’ll probably approach potential donors much differently than Emmert did — with a kind of “quiet knowledgeability” — Hayes said. And he thinks she will be successful.

Controversial moves

In her five years as university provost, Wise rarely made headlines. But one of her most ambitious undertakings was to create a new school within the university, the College of the Environment, that pulled together different science disciplines into a single entity. The plan sparked an intense debate among faculty members, some of whom had little interest in joining a new college.

“Very seldom do you ever see a provost take on a challenge like this,” said Herb Simon, chairman of the university’s board of regents, who praised Wise for creating the college.

Wise said the idea was not her own, but she became convinced that tying the various science departments into one school would allow the UW to better leverage its breadth and depth in environmental issues.

But a number of professors were skeptical. Ray Hilborn, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, voiced a common concern: that the college would not enable them to do anything they could not already do as separate schools.

Now that the college is up and running, Hilborn said he can see some advantages. The college’s new dean, Lisa Graumlich, was previously director of the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and is very highly regarded, he said. And some small programs that were orphans under the old system have been brought under her wing, giving them more power, he said.

Some of the opposition seems to have receded, and “it seems to be clicking along,” Hilborn said, although he added that creating the college was “shuffling deck chairs, at some level.”

More recently, in late 2009, Wise drew fire for joining the board of Nike, and faculty members said they feared her position on the board raised an appearance of conflict of interest.

The UW has a large athletic sponsorship contract with Nike, and a UW committee was calling on Emmert to put pressure on the company to improve its treatment of workers in poor countries.

In the end, Wise resolved the firestorm by donating all her Nike compensation to student scholarships, and Nike announced in July it would contribute $1.54 million to a relief fund for about 1,500 laid-off Honduran workers who were former Nike employees. Last fiscal year, Nike directors earned between $132,000 and $217,000 each in cash and stock, according to the company’s annual statement.

Doing her homework

In the two months since she was tapped to be interim president, Wise has been studying up on what it means to be the top administrator.

Wise said she has been under Emmert’s tutelage for the past two months, and expects to call on him for advice after he’s started his new job as president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). She has met with numerous legislators, as well as Gov. Chris Gregoire.

And those who know her say she is schooling herself well to fill the job.

“One of the real joys in the last couple of weeks is seeing how beautifully she is rising to the expectations,” said Cauce.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or