Emmert remembers the first time he visited the University of Washington.
He was about 13 years old, living in Fife, traveling to the UW campus
with his family to visit a cousin.
“I was stunned with the place,” he recalls. “It
was so beautiful, big, and exciting—every expansive adjective
you can think of. I knew that’s where I wanted to go to school.”
President--and College of Arts and Sciences alumnus--Mark
by Mary Levin.
Emmert got his wish,
graduating from the UW with a B.A. in Political Science in 1975.
Now he’s back in a new role: president. It’s the first
time in 48 years that an alumnus has returned to lead the University
Emmert comes to the UW with considerable administrative experience.
After earning a Masters in Public Affairs and Ph.D. from Syracuse
University, he joined the faculty of Northern Illinois University
and then University of Colorado, where he eventually served as the
Denver campus’s associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.
He went on to serve as provost at Montana State University, chancellor
at University of Connecticut, and chancellor at Louisiana State
University before accepting the position of University of Washington
In August, one month after arriving as president, Mark Emmert discussed
his return to the UW with A&S Perspectives editor Nancy
What do you remember
most from your years as a UW undergraduate in the early 1970s?
It was the opening of a floodgate of experiences. I had this sheltered,
working class American childhood. While I was always a good student,
and thought I was worldly—laughable of course—the UW
offered this explosion of experiences in the classroom, in the library,
and socially. It was this gigantic awakening.
As a student,
did you have any contact with then UW President Charles Odegaard?
I know that President Odegaard did a splendid job, leading the University
through some challenging times and helping it blossom. But when
I was an undergraduate, I never saw him and never had any connection
with him. That fact has shaped some of my behavior as a university
leader. I’ve tried to make the role of chancellor a very visible
one. I want to do that here with the presidency as well. It’s
hard because here there are 40,000 students. I can’t have
a personal relationship with them, but I can put a face on “the
administration.” When “the administration” does
something, it needs to be clear that there is a person, Mark Emmert,
You majored in
political science at the UW. Did you envision an academic career?
Not at all. I thought I was going to be a lawyer. Like most young
people, I wasn’t sure what political science was. As I took
a few classes in it, I found that I loved it. That and history.
Both captured and fired my imagination.
In my senior year, I realized that I didn’t want to do law.
I started casting about. I really liked public policy but didn’t
want to run for office. So I went off to graduate school in public
affairs thinking I might become a city manager. At that point, the
idea of being a professor hadn’t crossed my mind. But when
a number of [graduate school] faculty members asked me if I ever
thought of becoming a professor, it was like a light bulb going
You did quite
a bit of teaching early in your career but had to relinquish that
role as your administrative duties increased. Do you miss teaching?
I do. When I began teaching, I was surprised I liked it so much.
I was surprised that I got so much pleasure from watching other
people learn. It’s just great fun to watch, over the course
of a semester, someone’s knowledge really emerge. When I became
provost [at Montana State University], it was the first time I couldn’t
teach my own class. I’ve tried to tell myself that I’ve
chosen to do something else for now. For the moment, all I get a
chance to do is guest lecture. But I do get to interact with students
in different ways—through student government, recreational
sports, the Greek system, and residence halls. Now I get a broader
interaction with students, but not as deep an interaction.
You had just
renegotiated your contract at Louisiana State University when the
University of Washington contacted you about the presidency. Was
the decision to leave LSU difficult?
I loved LSU and planned to stay a long time—at least another
five to eight years. I had just told the LSU Board, “There’s
only one institution I would leave for, and that’s the University
of Washington.” Twelve months later, I was contacted by a
search firm regarding the UW position. It was a dream come true
for me and my wife, but a horrible time for LSU. We had just hired
a provost and I had just recommitted 12 months earlier. It was a
fragile moment. So I said “no” to the UW job.
here now, so something must have changed.
The UW came back to me again, and by this time I felt LSU was in
better shape. I’d said “no” to the UW once and
couldn’t say “no” twice. I swallowed hard and
told the LSU Board chair, and offered to do all I could to help
them find someone to replace me.
How has it felt
to be back at the UW in this new role? Does the campus seem dramatically
different than when you were a student?
My wife and I have been back to Washington quite a bit through the
years because our families are still here. Nearly every time we’d
visit them, I’d make a trip across campus. And because it’s
my alma mater and I’m in higher education, I’ve followed
UW news from afar. So there haven’t been any big surprises.
Do memories of
your own experience as a UW student provide useful insights?
Well, although I loved my experience as an undergraduate, there
were some things I didn’t like that are still concerns today.
It’s such a big place that it took me a while to find my way
around and develop relationships with my professors and other students.
We ought to be able to make that easier. We have made significant
strides to improve the nature of the undergraduate experience, but
it is still a challenge. For those students who reach out and grab
the University, they just have an unbelievable experience. For those
who are more passive, we have to make that easier for them.
What will be
your focus in the coming months?
I’ve got to continue to get to know the University, so right
now I’m listening more than talking, getting a clear sense
of this remarkable institution, learning what works and what doesn’t
work. Beyond that, I’d like to convey to the people of Washington
the centrality of higher education—and this university—
in this state. There is not a problem in this state for which the
University is not a central part of the solution. The state gets
a great return on its investment in higher education.
said that the UW is your last stop. True?
Yes. My aspiration is to retire from the presidency of the University
of Washington. I can’t even imagine why I’d want to
go to another university. I don’t say that casually. This
is one of the greatest universities on earth, and it’s my
home. Why would I want to go anyplace else?he
says. “I have long wanted to delve into Renaissance science
but never really had the opportunity. This course turned out to
be the most rewarding teaching experience of my career.”
[Autumn 2004 - Table of Contents]