Updated: A 'Wise' decision at the helm of the U.W.

The selection of Phyllis Wise as interim president was no surprise, but it does raise a few questions.
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Phyllis Wise

The selection of Phyllis Wise as interim president was no surprise, but it does raise a few questions.

No surprise: The University of Washington Regents have just named Provost Phyllis Wise as interim president of the university, effective some time this fall. The move was widely expected and is an assurance of continuity at the helm. From a reliable source I learn that no other candidates were seriously considered or offered the post; another good source says there were some overtures.

One obvious question: Would Wise possibly take the permanent presidency, if asked? The UW press office refers back to an earlier Seattle Times story by Nick Perry, which says: "Wise said Wednesday [April 28, 2010] that she won't be a candidate to replace Emmert for the long haul." That kind of statement is known in the trade as a hedged denial, since it holds open the door of being drafted to the post for which she was not formally a candidate.

UPDATE: I subsequently asked Provost Wise to clarify, asking if she would specifically rule out serving as permanent president, if prevailed upon to do so. Her reply: "My answer to your question is that I am not a candidate and I fully expect to return to my position as provost after the regents conclude a successful search. I would advise you not to read anything more complicated into the statement that I gave to Nick [Perry]. Anything beyond this is true speculation and there is nothing to speculate about."

Wise is 65 and typically universities want their presidents to serve at least five years, so age might rule her out. Still, it will be important to know if she firmly would not accept an offer. Any sense of an inside candidate tends to dampen the enthusiasm for outside candidates, and they will know how to interpret a non-Shermanesque denial. And a year at the helm can rouse ambitions for the job. On the other hand, Wise may have firmly ruled out a permanent appointment but wants to strengthen her authority with the university during the interim year by keeping vague about her tenure.

Wise will have as a first important step the appointment of an acting Provost, presumably someone from the many top appointments she has made. That's a presidential appointment, not needing a search committee or Regent approval. Exactly when she takes over and Emmert departs is not yet clear. By terms of his contractual notice, Emmert cannot stay beyond November 1, but it is likely that the NCAA post he's taking up needs him sooner than that, and at the least that he won't be all that present starting in September.

One sticky issue for Wise is her serving on the Nike board. She revealed for the first time that she donates her board fees to UW scholarships. On the Nike board she recuses herself from voting on the UW contract with Nike, which may soon be terminated. She also recuses herself from any UW decisions on the relationship with Nike. Stepping up to the full position will not mean any change in these terms with Nike, spokesman Bob Roseth said. One wonders, given all the criticism of her Nike involvement, why the Regents would not have insisted she resign from that board as a condition of her becoming interim president.

As provost, Wise has earned mixed grades. President Emmert, very much an "outside" president, promised that he would appoint a top-flight provost to run the academic side of the university, and he honored his part of the bargain by being a hands-off president. Wise was not an experienced top-university administrator, coming here from three years as Dean of the College of Biological Sciences at University of California, Davis; before that she was a department chair at the University of Kentucky. Her reputation was more as a researcher than as an administrator.

Wise has not enjoyed automatic deference from many at the U.W. and has stumbled often in appointing new deans. Her main accomplishment was creating the new College of the Environment, roping several strong and loudly protesting barons into a controversial new multi-departmental grouping. As provost, she has been earning $559,000 a year, typical of the high-salaries style of the Emmert administration. Her new salary will be $471,000 a year, plus deferred compensation of $150,000 a year.

Underlying this choice is the sense that the current regents are politically very divided, right at a time when the university has profound financial problems and a sinking reputation in Olympia. Exactly what kind of a new leader thus becomes a highly contested question. For now, the choice is continuity, a fairly typical recipe for the year or so that interim presidents normally serve. It may also be a harbinger.


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