A member of the UW faculty since 1986, Ana Mari Cauce began her current role as President in 2015. Difficult campus conversations on free speech and safe spaces have been intensified by the recent appearance of neo-Nazi posters, as well as controversy and a shooting following Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’s invitation by the College Republicans to speak on campus.
Here, we catch up with Ana on maintaining a strong campus community throughout these difficulties. We also hear about a new initiative in public health, as well as how her initial love of clinical and community psychology led her here.
1. Yale has been in the news cycle recently for its ongoing discussions on social equity, safe spaces, and freedom of expression. At UW, do you think that students on both ends of the political spectrum feel heard by each other? What are some key behaviors or actions by students and administration that have improved mutual understanding?
I think it’s been hard for our students at the outer edges of each spectrum to trust enough to really listen to each other. Too often they talk past each other, because not only is the distrust high, so is the fear. In recent months, all over the country, including at UW, we’ve seen neo-Nazi posters on campus and there has been more gender-, faith-, race-based harassment reported.
I think we’ve had some really good conversations across differences as part of our Race & Equity initiative, but these have often worked best when the groups have some clear common interests. But, then of course, students of wildly differing political beliefs end up connecting with each other in classes, through sports, in a range of campus activities. It often works best, albeit slowly, when students meet and bond through common interests that aren’t politics. Having forged that bond, difficult political conversations become more likely.
2. How do you see your role within the UW’s overall mission?
The President, together with his or her leadership team set’s the agenda, and the tone. It’s my job, as President, to make sure we’re all working in synch with each other and in service to our mission as a premier public research university. It’s also my job to facilitate and inspire. There’s nothing more inspirational than the stories of our students, what some overcame to get here, the plans they have for after graduation, and how they will shape the future. I get to curate and tell those stories. I’m incredibly lucky, and I don’t take any of it for granted.
3. Describe an initiative you’re currently involved in that’s meaningful to you.
I recently launched an initiative focusing on Population Health that’s goal is quite simply to improve the health of people around the world. Put this way, it may sound grandiose, but it builds upon strengths of both the university and the greater Puget Sound community. We not only have an excellent School of Medicine, first in the country in primary care and rural health, but a top rated Department of Global Health with faculty in countries all over the world, a terrific School of Public Health and we’re home to the Institute of Health Metrics which is providing the data to help us diagnose health at a city or neighborhood level. We’re also set in a community with dozens of agencies involved in global health and the top non-profit in the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation which in the last year has contributed over $400 million toward our work in the area. It’s truly exciting to see new collaborations popping up, not only across the health sciences but with education, the social sciences, and engineering. In a short time, this initiative taken off because it’s something our faculty, staff, and students are truly passionate about.
4. In what ways has your understanding of UW’s mission, and of your role within it, changed since you first joined the university in 1986?
It’s been tremendously expanded. I understood the educational and research missions, even if not their scope, but I hadn’t really thought about the role of the university in community building, whether through its athletic, music, theater, dance and arts performances, or more directly in producing the innovations that create new businesses. I was also largely unaware of the role that universities play as ambassadors for the U.S. around the globe. This is most obvious in terms of the international students we host and the U.S. students that we send abroad, but through our scientific and artistic collaborations which are truly worldwide.
5. How do you check in on whether you are on the right track?
It’s really important to me that I spend time on campus, listening and interacting with our students, faculty, and staff. And in the community listening to parents and neighbors, city, county and state government officials, business organizations, and non-profit community centers. Showing up and being present is the best way of checking in on what’s going right, and what’s not.
6. On what things have you chosen to become an expert, and what do you do for breadth and variety?
I’m not sure I can be so bold as to claim true expertise in any one area, I’m a bit of a generalist. I do have a reasonable level of expertise in my own field of community/clinical psychology, and I find it quite useful in this job. I’ve also acquired some level of expertise in academic administration, having been a chair, director, dean, vice provost, provost and now president. But, what I love about being an academic is the sheer range of activities I get to participate in. In this past year I’ve watched our football team compete in the Pac-12 final, visited the labs of scientists engaging in protein design, stem cell regeneration, and examining the effects of “red tide” on marine life. I’ve attended dance and musical performances by our students or visiting artists, I’ve spoken to civic organizations about the importance of higher education, and right now I’m about to start teaching a freshmen seminar on leadership. It doesn’t get much better for someone with a high need for stimulation.
7. Is there a theme or underlying question/goal that you’ve often found yourself coming back to throughout the course of your career?
What drew me to clinical/community psychology, with an emphasis on the study of youth in high risk environments is a desire to better understand how to develop our most important natural resource – human capital. I pretty much always wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t discover research until later in life. Research provides an avenue to both discover new knowledge and to teach in the most exciting way possible. In many ways, while I’m not in the classroom very often, I’m still teaching – to legislators about why this university is so important to the health of our community, to potential donors how they can give “through” us to a range of causes they are passionate about, from environmental, to human services, to science and the arts. For me education isn’t a career, it’s a vocation.