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Tuesday, March 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

New president visits UW, says contract could be signed in days

By Sanjay Bhatt and Sharon Pian Chan
Seattle Times staff reporters

The University of Washington's new president, Mark Emmert, and his wife, DeLaine, take in the cherry blossoms on the Quad.
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The Board of Regents introduced Mark Emmert as the University of Washington's 30th president yesterday, bringing to a close a 17-month national search for the next leader of the state's flagship university.

Emmert, the chancellor of Louisiana State University, was offered the job Friday, arrived in Seattle on Sunday to meet students and faculty and planned to be back in Louisiana tomorrow. During a news conference yesterday, he said an employment contract could be signed in a matter of days but that his salary had not been finalized.

At LSU, Emmert made $490,000 a year, plus a $100,000 annual bonus, from public and private sources, almost 50 percent more than what the UW pays its current president, Lee Huntsman.

"I can't imagine being at a better university than the University of Washington," Emmert said. "This is my home. This is my alma mater. This is my last stop in my lap of America."

The Tacoma native and UW alumnus said his first priority will be to get familiar with the university's culture and community. Emmert said his long-term goal is for the institution to be "an excellent university in all that it does," one that "stands shoulder to shoulder with the finest public universities in the country," such as the University of California, Berkeley.

"The next step is not a tall one, but an important one," said Emmert, 51.

He acknowledged the difficulty of persuading state lawmakers to boost spending on higher education, but said he would take the same approach he used in Louisiana — making citizens and lawmakers alike aware of the economic, cultural and social impacts of a healthy university system.

"Politics is a retail enterprise," selling ideas, said Emmert, who graduated from the UW with a bachelor's degree in political science, then received master's and doctoral degrees in public administration from Syracuse University.

He said he found success in Louisiana by meeting one-on-one with lawmakers and explaining how critical higher education was to their constituents. He also worked with coalitions to lobby on his behalf.

Asked whether he would work to support a statewide tax initiative aimed at raising more money for K-12 and higher education, Emmert replied: "I'm willing to do almost anything that advances the cause of the university."

Tuition levels at the UW are "very disconcerting," Emmert said, adding that the university should have "the greatest flexibility" with tuition rates to ensure equity.

"We're not creating it to be a University of Washington for rich people. We're creating it to be a University of Washington for the citizens of the state," he said.

Emmert also said a diverse university body is one of the "critical measures of success" in higher education. It "flavors and enhances the nature of the educational experience for all students," he said. At LSU, he tried to aggressively recruit students from diverse backgrounds and promote the campus as welcoming of diversity. "When I talk to African-American kids they're very, very proud to be a part of LSU," Emmert said.

After the news conference, Christy Jen, a UW junior from Louisiana, said she hopes Emmert can keep tuition rates under control. Her friend Leyen Vu, a fifth-year student, said Emmert should expand the office of minority affairs and recruit more underrepresented minorities. Vu, a college-football fan, also said he looked forward to Emmert's attention to the athletic department. "That's one of the things on his list, but I don't think it should be top priority," Vu said.

'My greatest accomplishment'

Emmert grew up in Fife near Tacoma, one of two boys — his brother, Steve, still lives in Tacoma and is a building inspector for Kent. Their father was an optician; their mother, a teacher's aide in the Fife School District. The family attended Fife Presbyterian Church, where Mark Emmert married his high-school sweetheart, DeLaine Smith.

"My greatest accomplishment is staying married," Emmert joked yesterday.

They have two children: Steve, 24, is working in China for an engineering firm, Emmert said. Jennifer, 18, is a freshman at the University of Colorado and is studying to become a doctor.

Emmert held faculty and administrative positions at the University of Colorado from 1985 to 1992, then spent four years at Montana State University. There he became provost and vice president for academic affairs. In 1995 he moved to the University of Connecticut, where he served as chancellor and helped raise its academic profile and fatten its endowment.

In 1999 he left Connecticut for LSU. According to his sister-in-law Leanne Emmert, at each school he's been an avid sports fan, even painting part of his house in Baton Rouge in LSU purple and gold.

His loyalty to UW teams, his sister-in-law said, won't have to be cultivated. He and his brother, who attended Washington State University, have kept up a Huskies-Cougars rivalry for years.

At LSU, students, faculty and administrators say Emmert is an impressive chancellor, able to set a clear agenda, politically astute and approachable, striking up conversations with students when he is walking around campus. They say he responds to every e-mail students send him.

The biggest victory Emmert scored at LSU, colleagues say, was making higher education a funding priority in the state. To be sure, Emmert had the strong support of the state governor and LSU system president, but colleagues also describe him as someone who can sell the university agenda by understanding how to craft his pitch to his audience.

"I would bring him down to meet the (state) Legislature, he would walk away and they would say, 'Man, this guy is good,' "said Scott Woodward, LSU director of external affairs. "Whether it was Democrat or Republican, African American, rural white, it was, 'Wow.' "

As a result, he has secured funds to give the faculty a raise every year since 1999 and to support information-technology and biotechnology initiatives. Because of a scholarship program that guarantees college tuition for high-performing students, the state foots the tuition bill for nearly all of LSU's students. As a result, it's extremely difficult to push through tuition increases, since the Legislature would be jacking up its own bill.

Still, Emmert persuaded lawmakers to raise tuition and garnered support from a student coalition to begin charging a "student academic-excellence fee" to help attract top teachers.

In 2002, he launched the Flagship Agenda, an ambitious effort to bring LSU, a third-tier research university, into the second tier by hiring more tenure-track faculty, recruiting more graduate students, raising admission standards and securing more outside research funds. (The UW is a top-tier research university.)

Critics: Layoffs led to larger classes

As part of the push to hire more tenure-track faculty, LSU has laid off a large number of instructors, most of whom do not have doctoral degrees.

Many have criticized the layoffs, including faculty and students who say the result has been larger classes.

"It makes teaching better, but it makes the classes bigger. Some classes can't be taught in stadium classrooms," said senior Knick Moore.

Emmert's supporters credit him with recruiting people who have served the university well — a provost from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the vice chancellor for research from University of California, Davis, and a physics and computer-science professor from the Albert Einstein Institute in Germany.

Role of athletics in raising money

He also lured Nick Saban, the coach whose LSU team won the national football championship this year.

Emmert is involved in athletics — overly so, some critics say, but supporters say he understands how important a role athletics play in raising money for the university.

And he knows how to use athletic success to his advantage with the media. When LSU's football team went to the finals, he wrote an editorial in The New York Times highlighting the school's academic achievements.

Yesterday in Seattle, UW officials escorted Mark and DeLaine Emmert to the Quad after the news conference.

There, photographers took portraits of them in front of cherry blossoms under an azure sky. DeLaine Emmert marveled at the thousands of white petals showering people walking beneath the trees.

"I feel like I'm going to a wedding," she said.

"It is" a wedding, the UW official walking with them said. "You're married to the university."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or Seattle Times staff reporter Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.


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