Crosscut: Can Mike Young save the UW?

Source: David Brewster,  Crosscut, January 10, 2012.  He’s been dealt a bad hand, and he’s keeping his cards close to his vest. But the new president may have the smarts and the steadiness to rebuild the finances of this critical institution.

The new president of the University of Washington, Michael K. Young, a former law professor who arrived this past summer from the presidency of the University of Utah, has a steady, unflappable, and low-key manner that is already wearing well with legislators and faculty.

But he is also giving off a faint and perfectly understandable sense of being daunted by the job he is facing. One hopes the circumspection reflects a smart strategy of waiting for the right moment to produce a turnaround strategy.

After a strong start, Young somewhat faded from view. “As the CEO of a major institution,” observes one key, impatient legislator, “Young ought to be in the second rollout of his major plans for change. It’s showtime!” But not even the first rollout has come, and Young is studiously vague on some of the big issues such as Governor Chris Gregoire’s proposal for a three-year sales tax boost to help buy back the recent brutal cuts in state funding of higher education. “I like the idea of additional revenues,” is as close as he would come at a recent Crosscut editorial gathering to commenting on Gregoire’s deeply controversial proposal.

Some observers and insiders I’ve talked to are concerned at this slow start, but most feel it’s too early to judge how effective Young can be and what his actual plan for turning around the UW’s fortunes will turn out to be. He’s clearly taking his time, figuring out whom he can trust, and starting to make some changes in his key staff. He’s also settling into a new state, a new marriage (to a woman 24 years younger than he is), and trying to get his arms around an array of challenges likely worse than he thought when he took the job. Maybe it’s not showtime, at least yet?

In politics, including academic politics, timing is everything. When it comes to Olympia, and repairing the university’s rocky relationship, particularly with Speaker Frank Chopp (both a UW graduate and the representative from the university district), a pause seems wise. The last legislative session was all about higher education, and Democrats (with Speaker Chopp’s grudging acquiescence) overcame their historic aversion to high tuition and agreed to a program resulting in a 20 percent hike in UW undergraduate tuition in this year and probably a similar boost next year.

That’s what’s known as “a heavy lift.” So the 2012 legislative session is most likely going to focus on funding for human services, hoping that the universities spend the year finding internal economies and digesting the recent changes. It’s also a good year to repair relations with legislators, something that the interim president, Phyllis Wise, effectively did. Her open, “vulnerable” manner was a welcome relief after the more lordly approach of former president Mark Emmert.

Young seemed to wlcome this year of lowered temperatures, saying that “the tone of the legislature has changed,” and that he’s leaving a lot of the lobbying to the business community, which he says has weighed in to prevent any further hollowing out of research universities. Given that there will be a new governor in 2012 and maybe new majorities in the legislature, it also makes sense to avoid trying to fashion any big changes in funding for the UW.

Young himself would appear to have a heavy lift. President Emmert notably delegated the two big tasks of running a university, the budget and academic affairs, to Provost Wise, so when Wise departed this fall to be chancellor of the University of Illinois, Young inherited a big job of rebuilding. His first two major appointments seem solid. He chose to restrict the provost search to UW candidates, reversing an initial instinct for a national search, and made an admired choice of the arts and sciences dean, Ana Mari Cauce, a Cuban American with a forceful manner and a passion for social equity issues. For chief of staff he brought back a highly regarded former top lawyer for the university, Jack Johnson. Next up: he’ll need to build up the financial strategic planning capabilities of his office.

The university thus faces two daunting facts of life. First, the recession, as well as UW’s decade-long unpopularity in Olympia, has sharply cut state funding. What had been $14,000 in state funding per student in 1990 is now $5,000. The bulk has been made up by tuition boosts. Tuition and fees, which totaled $4,863 in 2003, are now $10,574. And while this amount is slightly under the tuition of peer state research universities, there is not a lot more blood in that stone.

The second fact of life is that the university has not had distinguished leadership for the past decade. Former President Richard McCormick was badly overmatched by the job and never caught on with faculty or in Olympia before departing to head Rutgers University. Emmert, who now heads the NCAA, was initially skilled with politicians and always deft with donors but also hands-off and prone to temporize on hard decisions.

The university seems to have soldiered on fairly well with a coherent group of deans and other top officers. But it has always fought above its weight in the academic sweepstakes for front-rank research universities, largely by developing a prowess at getting research grants. The UW is thus dangerously over-leveraged and vulnerable to taking a mighty tumble. Now it clearly needs decisive leadership. One former regent predicts: “It’s got five years to rebuild its financial base.” And Young probably only has a year or two to come up with a strong plan for doing so before panic would set in.

During Crosscut’s wide-ranging, 90-minute conversation with Young, one could discern certain themes and personality traits. He clearly loves and respects teaching, and his most animated and eloquent moments came when he turned into a lucid law professor and talked about reconciling religious-liberty issues with human rights. (I was ready to sign up for his class on the spot.)

He is also a skilled negotiator, from much high-level experience in that field (including German unification and Asian trade issues). He easily uses phrases such as, “Let’s back up and view the problem from another perspective,” or, “Let me unpack that issue a little, and I LOVE that question.” He’s substantive and has a lot of intellectual bandwidth. He gets that one of the key advantages of the UW is its fabled skill in highly complex, interdisciplinary programs. And he’s been effective in creating new programs of note at major universities (Columbia and George Washington law schools, and Utah).

I was also struck by his open-mindedness. At one point, for instance, he was asked for his views on “activity-based budgeting,” which is a way of flowing more dollars to departments that agree to teach more students, particularly introductory courses. He pointed out how that had broken down professors’ resistance to such courses in Utah, but “now, having said that, it does create some problems”: small departments like philosophy could suffer, and it is a disincentive for interdisciplinary programs. Over and again he made clear his relish for “very complex analytical disciplines.”

One might think this temperament would be well suited for some fairly modest reforms that do not stir up the furies of academic debate too much. There are some dials that can be turned, gently. Allow in more out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition (currently about 80 percent of undergraduates are from Washington state, higher than at most peer universities). The university is admirably generous in its support for low- and modest-income students. One could, if the politics were to allow it, pare back the number of full-ride, low-income Husky Promise students (currently 25 percent, or 8,500 students). A generous State Need Grants program, a program so far evading the state scalpel and which partially funds education for students from families with incomes below $70,000, could also be reformed and cut (again, a political hot potato).

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