Asian American female a ‘Wise’ choice for the UW?

Editor’s note: This story was chosen as one of our top 12 in 2010. We were sad to see Mark Emmert leave the University of Washington (UW). However, we were elated to see Phyllis Wise take his place. Wise made history by being the first female and the first Asian American to serve as president of the UW. Currently, she is interim president, but time will tell if she will be chosen for a more permanent role. We are crossing our fingers for her.

Jocelyn Chui
Northwest Asian Weekly

Phyllis Wise at her office in Gerberding Hall (Photo by Jocelyn Chui/NWAW)

The University of Washington (UW) Board of Regents named Phyllis Wise interim UW president on July 8. This makes Wise the first female and the first Asian American to sit in the UW president’s chair.

According to Robert Roseth from the UW media office, Wise is the first official female UW president. Mary R. Thayer, who served as the UW president for a few months in 1874, was not listed as an official president in “First Century of the UW” (the official history of the university), written by Charles Gates.

When asked about her feelings on the post, Wise said that she is experiencing a mix of emotions.

“There is always pride when someone of your cultural background or race has achieved something,” Wise said from her office in Gerberding Hall, the day after being named interim president. “I feel really honored and excited. This is a real privilege with great responsibilities.”

Wise will take charge at the university after the current president, Mark Emmert, leaves in the fall of 2010 for his position at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Wise said one of her most important goals is to make sure  that the UW will approach the legislative section in 2011.

“[We want to] be prepared to listen very carefully to the advice of the legislators and the governor and be prepared to talk about the strengths of the UW and how we can contribute to this region, the state, the nation, and the world,” Wise said. “We have to figure out ways to provide the best learning environment for students anywhere and for our faculty to be able to teach and do their scholarships.”

Wise described herself as a consultative and responsible leader who is capable of making hard decisions while, at the same time, willing to consider changing those decisions if there is new information.

“[Emmert] has been a wonderful adviser and teacher, but we are different people, and I expect to lead in a way that I know how,” Wise said.

Wise pointed out that being Asian American and female means that people will be watching her extra carefully.

“When you are the first, you have extra responsibilities so that you don’t let everyone down, so that you meet the expectations of everyone,” said Wise. “If you succeed, they will be particularly proud, and if you fail, they will be particularly disappointed.”

The executive director of the UW Women’s Center, Sutapa Basu, said she was excited to see an Asian American woman be named as an interim UW president, saying the appointment reflects the diverse community of our society.

“After many years of women working very hard to bring capable women into leadership in our society, it is rewarding to see Dr. Phyllis Wise in this position,” Basu said. “It is good to see the UW making strides in appointing women and people of color to leadership positions.”

“I am very excited and proud to have Dr. Phyllis Wise, the first Asian American and first woman to serve as UW President,” said Cynthia del Rosario, director for graduate minority recruitment and retention at the UW. “This is an exciting opportunity, as well as a huge undertaking in challenging times, and I am fully confident that Phyllis’ leadership experience, expertise, and thoughtfulness will guide us well.”

At a rotary club meeting on July 14, Emmert said, “Phyllis Wise is spectacular. She will even surprise herself with how good of a job she will do.”

Some, however, aren’t enthused about Wise’s appointment. Pete Gallagher, UW senior and an organizer of the Student Labor Action Project, said, “This means our current president will be serving on Nike’s corporate board while there are still outstanding illegal workers’ rights violations that Nike has committed.

This violates the university’s code of conduct for apparel licensees.”

Last year, Wise took a position on the corporate board of Nike, which some have criticized as a conflict of interest. Nike also has an athletic contract with the UW.

“My expectations for Wise’s leadership aren’t too bright,” said Gallagher. “But I would love to be proven wrong. My hope is that Wise becomes more receptive to more democratic decision making that does not marginalize undergraduates and campus workers, and keeps the UW open and accessible for everyone.”

Wise said that the search committee for the next UW president has been formed. It will take about nine months to a year to find a new president. Wise said she did not see herself as a candidate to be the next UW president. “What I am concentrating on right now is doing the best job I can possibly do as the interim president,” she said.

Born and raised in New York City, Wise, 65, holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Swarthmore College and a doctorate in zoology from the University of Michigan. She came to Seattle to take the position of provost in August 2005. She became the executive vice president of the UW in 2007.

Wise said her parents were both Chinese, and they came to the United States to pursue their education before World War II. Wise’s father, whose last name was Wang, had an MD degree from Beijing Union Medical College prior to earning a doctorate from Northwestern University. Her mother graduated with a nursing degree from Yenching University, Beijing, before pursuing a teaching nursing education degree at Columbia Teacher’s College. ♦

Jocelyn Chui can be reached at

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3 Responses to “Asian American female a ‘Wise’ choice for the UW?”


  1. […] July 8, 2010: Asian American female a ‘Wise’ choice for the UW? […]

  2. […] July 8, 2010: Asian American female a ‘Wise’ choice for the UW? […]

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Troy Shaw, Women in Higher Edu, Sue Boo, Lisa Tetzloff, Amber GarrisonDuncan and others. Amber GarrisonDuncan said: RT @womeninhighered: Congrats! Phyllis Wise named UWash interim president making her the 1st female and Asian American leader #highered […]

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