Go West, Young U.W. President Young

The University of Washington taps a lawyer from the University of Utah to be its new leader. He would seem to be well matched for the inflection point the university faces.

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Michael K. Young

The University of Washington taps a lawyer from the University of Utah to be its new leader. He would seem to be well matched for the inflection point the university faces.

The University of Washington, which is today announcing its new president, Michael K. Young of the University of Utah, is at an inflection point that will define higher education for decades. The next UW president needs to be a transformational figure, a savior who can finesse politicians, business barons, professors, and churlish alums. No job in the Northwest is freighted with higher expectations or longer odds.

In addition to enduring Olympia's budget cuts, the UW is getting starved by the feds, including a potential 40-percent reduction in Title VI funding. At the confluence of these misery streams stands the University's newly named president, Michael Young.

Young's background harmonizes well with the UW. He's a Westerner, a scholar of Japanese law, and an advocate of international human rights. At Utah, he learned how to schmooze lawmakers and manage the urban-rural resentment divide. He is an attorney, normally something of an outlier in academe (neither science nor humanities), but perhaps helped by the presidential search committee chair, UW Law School Dean Kellye Testy. Before coming to Utah, Young was dean of the George Washington University Law School.

A lawyer, grounded in the academy and political maneuvering, could do some good. Only one past UW president was an attorney: Thomas Franklin Kane, who served from 1902 to 1914, but who preferred his title as a professor of Greek and Latin. There have been MDs (John Hogness) and foresters (Henry Schmitz), a journalist (Matthew Spencer), and a geologist (Henry Landes). Previous presidents have been drawn from public administration (Mark Emmert), American history (Richard McCormick), and political science (Bill Gerberding).

In the end, the best inflection-point president was an unassuming historian named Charles Odegaard who lifted the university from an average to a world-class research institution while navigating the glory and riot of the 1960s. In 1973, 5,000 students crowded Red Square to say thank you and present Odegaard with a sweatshirt that read, in French, "I am the university." "This just isn't true," Odegaard replied. "The university is us."

Young has limited options. One course, squaring the circle, would be to boost tuition but also increase in-state enrollment, as Joni Balter recently suggested in a Seattle Times' column. Or does the UW become a University of Virginia, slouching towards privatization by trading lower state funding for full autonomy in tuition and course offerings? The latter seems to violate the democratic mission of a public university.

In his memoir, The Memory Chalet, the late Tony Judt writes about his experience as a UK native driving across the United States, vast cornfields and deserts unwinding, and discovering these valhallas, great public universities like Indiana and Nebraska. Europe, straitjacketed by class, had nothing to compare.

The new U.W. president will receive loads of boorish advice, so here's my nabob recommendation: Have lunch or breakfast weekly at By George or some other student-faculty hangout. It will do you good.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson