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 Gov. 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 welcome 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.
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