Michael K. Young: For UW's top dog, it's time to shape the future
A little more than a year after he started as president of the University of Washington, Michael K. Young is generally getting high marks from the university community.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
He's held the job for more than 16 months, attended dozens of football and basketball games, welcomed two freshmen classes and presided over a graduation ceremony.
But President Michael K. Young still talks about the University of Washington like an outsider who's privy to an unusual degree of inside information about an institution he admires.
"Even locally, it's not appreciated what a great university this community has built," he said. "You should be really proud of this remarkable place."
Observers say Young's first year was a warm-up, a getting-to-know-you period for the former head of the University of Utah. Now some are looking for him to outline a broader vision for the university.
"Chapter 1 has been a good read," said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who said he's awaiting Chapter 2 — Young's second full year. "I think, now, he is presented with the opportunity to both articulate and act on what the Young era is going to be about."
Last month, Young began etching out the elements of his vision for the UW as an institution that can help solve societal problems and spur economic growth. He says the university is poised to be — and in many ways, already is — a nationwide leader in biotech, personalized medicine, sustainability and bioengineering.
Among his priorities:
• A continuing emphasis on commercialization at the UW — taking ideas and discoveries and turning them into marketable products. But Young cautions it's unlikely inventions and commercialization will solve the university's funding woes.
• Raising faculty salaries ("that's got to be a number one priority"), stabilizing university funding and implementing differential tuition so some majors cost more than others.
• Creating a program that would allow Washingtonians who never completed their bachelor's degree to return to finish out their credits at the UW, earning a real UW degree — not just "UW lite."
For himself, Young does not want to become the fundraiser in chief, a role former President Mark Emmert often assumed.
"I didn't take this job to be the PR face of this university," Young said. "I came to be part of an intellectual enterprise, and to be intimately involved in the running of that. I plan to be, and I think probably have been, involved in the day-to-day activities."
Young generally gets high marks from the state legislators who know him, as well as his employers, the UW's Board of Regents. He is paid $550,000 a year plus other perks, and if he stays until May 2016, he will get an additional deferred-compensation payment of nearly $1 million.
"I think he's doing a great job," said Regents chairwoman Joanne Harrell, who said she talks with him three or four times a week.
Harrell praised Young for giving the regents a clear picture of how the UW is monetizing commercial opportunities, and for his efforts to streamline operations.
Faculty members also give him high marks, and are pleased that he has not tried to remake the university.
\"Grand visions — that may sound good, but in dealing with a really complicated institution, it's enough of a task to make sure all the parts work together well," said Jim Gregory, a history professor and head of the UW Faculty Senate.
Students see in him a leader who's "not interested in maintaining the status quo, it's about pushing the university a little more," said student body President Evan Smith. "I'm really liking where he's going in terms of innovation."
But that's not to say all students have been charmed by Young's presidency. During a campuswide address in October, an off-the-cuff remark that students might have to "get an actual job" if their Pell grants are canceled flew through campus like a political gaffe on the campaign trail. His championing of differential tuition — charging more for degree programs that are more expensive to run — is opposed by student-government leaders.
And students who work as employees of the university, such as teaching assistants and tutors, are unhappy that the UW rejected an arbitrator's ruling that would have waived two new student fees that academic employees now pay. Young has argued that the arbitrator exceeded his authority.
But that decision showed "a lack of respect for students," said Grace Flott, a senior who tutors at a writing center on campus.
Young, 63, has a candid style that's both scholarly and a bit folksy. His speech can be blunt, but also somewhat quaint.
A few of his favorite adjectives: "remarkable," "extraordinary," "nonsense" — sometimes, even, "nonsense on stilts." And he's acquired the requisite wardrobe of purple-and-gold ties and shirts that are a must-have for any top-level UW administrator.
With a bristly head of hair that defies gravity and a vigorous physical presence, Young says he enjoys a run along the shores of Lake Washington with his wife, Marti, whom he met in Salt Lake City and married shortly after he was named president. They live in the UW president's mansion, Hill-Crest, a few blocks west of Lake Washington in Madison Park.
At the University of Utah, Young became known as a national leader for commercialization. Since coming here, he's set a goal of doubling the number of new companies spun out by the UW in the next few years. Under his leadership, the UW set up the privately funded, $20 million W Fund to pay for financing new startup adventures.
He describes commercialization as one of the most effective routes to get new discoveries into the hands of people who will benefit most from them — a job that should be paramount for a university, but one that academia has often failed to deliver.
"This is not about making money, this is not about distorting people's research agenda and only doing research that has commercial potential," he said. "This is about fundamentally using one more of many techniques to do good in the world."
Carlyle, the Seattle legislator, is especially interested in seeing Young expand commercialization efforts, and says it's in no way at odds with the university's academic mission.
"It's about bringing ideas to life, that turn into value, that cure cancer, that change the world," Carlyle said.
But not all agree. Gerald Barnett, a former UW employee who now runs a consulting company in Lynnwood, says he thinks the UW's great strength is in basic research, which often doesn't yield a marketable product.
"Michael Young is trying to turn the UW from an amazing center of research to something much more narrow," said Barnett, who advises invention-licensing programs and startup companies, and used to work for the UW in a similar role.
Barnett campaigned against a constitutional amendment that would have given the UW and Washington State University authority to invest some money in private funds; the measure, which was on the November ballot, failed. He's been critical of the UW for the way it's managed its money, and thinks the university should have worked harder to keep tuition low.
The relentless increase in tuition, largely fueled by state cutbacks, is another tension point on campus.
Many students would like to see Young stand with them as they battle education cutbacks in Olympia.
A few say he can be aloof and guarded.
Still, in Olympia, he's been "accessible, very bright, thoughtful, " said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.
In his address to the university community in October, Young outlined a proposal that would create a program to help adults who never finished their bachelor's degree come back to school and complete it.
Adam Sherman, a law-school student and president of the UW's Graduate and Professional Student Senate, said graduate students are hopeful that Young will articulate a grand vision for the university's next 10 to 20 years, and enlist students in developing that plan.
Carlyle, too, is looking for vision.
"A president of the University of Washington has to be a thought leader on higher-education issues, inevitably," said Carlyle, who is vice chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. "Young knows that. He's set the foundation for that.
"And now, it's showtime."
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.