By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Phyllis Wise was younger, she worried that her decision to start a family would stall her career. She knew she wasn’t advancing as quickly as her peers, and guilt plagued her.
People offered Wise advice, but she realized that she needed to find her own solution. In the end, she stayed true to her values. She wanted children and a family.
She learned that she didn’t need to abide by a certain life path. “Take the time to know what you want,” said Wise. “If you make a decision, be aware of what the repercussions might be.”
Such brazen thinking has led her to her current role as interim president of the University of Washington (UW).
Now, Wise has weekly meetings with the deans of academic colleges. She fields meetings from the student government and interest groups. And she fights alongsidelegislators in Olympia over the school budget. It’s all in a week’s work for Madam President.
The challenging first months of presidency
Though only three months into her term, Wise wasted no time delving into the heart of the UW’s major crisis: Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget cut on higher education all across the state.
If the governor’s proposal goes through, UW’s budget would be reduced to $400 million for the 2011–2013 biennium. This is a cut of nearly 50 percent over a four-year period.
During former UW President Mark Emmert’s term, the UW had 25 percent of its funding cut during the 2009–2011 biennium. The school responded to the situation by strategically cutting administrative positions to preserve academic units, such as small class section sizes and teaching positions, so students would see little impact.
Wise does not believe the same tactic can be used again if the budget proposal follows through.
“Because of safety, compliance, and regulation concerns, we can no longer cut administrative positions. We’re now considering the elimination of school programs and consolidating our schools and colleges,” she said.
These discussions are in their early stages. Wise said a thorough discussion with college deans about their programs will take place before major changes are implemented.
In a press release, Gregoire said that if Washington state is unable to support the finances of higher education institutions, universities will be allowed to increase tuition prices.
However, Wise is adamant about not increasing tuition rates and views this as the last resort. Instead, she has rearranged the school’s structure through having larger classes and student sections, or through offering certain classes once a year.
There has also been talk of the university accepting fewer in-state students. Wise said she has a desire to keep the UW accessible, but did note that out-of-state tuition may cushion the proposed budget cuts.
The legislature will not make a decision on the budget cuts until the spring. However, if the proposals go through, Wise hopes that universities will at least be allowed to make up their fiscal gap through financial flexibility on capital spending, tuition rates, and interaction with the state government.
“It’s been a challenge to plan for the next few years … since we’re not going to be totally recovered, economically, in the state. The key is finding the balance, to plan the next two years to meet the budget cut, but always keeping in mind to plan for the next 20 years.”
During her tenure as the UW provost, Wise accepted a seat on the corporate board of Nike. Critics decried Wise’s credibility, accusing her of mixing corporate and academic interests due to the sizable contract that Nike holds with the university.
Though Wise said that her philanthropy was a private matter, it was later revealed that Wise had been donating her Nike compensation towards UW scholarships. She no longer deals with Nike as interim president.
“There is now a firewall between anything Nike does with [the] UW and what I do,” Wise said. Once she was appointed to her new position, she extracted herself from all Nike affairs and arranged for UW’s vice president of finance and facilities, V’Ella Warren, to handle any decisions between the school and the corporation.
“I truly believe there is no conflict of interest,” said Wise.
The president versus the provost
Despite the temporary status of her position, Wise has not found that being interim president limits her decision-making ability. She said she doesn’t see herself as an “interim person.”
“Legislators and business leaders have been there for me … as if I were the president. People have accepted it. I don’t think the community wants someone to just ‘hold down the fort.’ ”
When asked if she preferred the position of president or provost more, Wise said she sees both roles benefiting the community in different ways. While a provost strengthens communication within its borders internally by interweaving academic colleges and groups, the president conducts external relations for the university.
For colleague Connie Kravas, who is vice president for university advancement at the UW, Wise’s background as provost has only enhanced her ability to serve as interim president.
“No other role gives you more insight into a school than a provost. It’s given [Wise] the gift to speak with such knowledge of the UW,” said Kravas, who also worked with Wise as provost. Currently, the two work together on issues concerning alumni constituent relations and fundraising.
“Any provost, as an academic leader, is steeped in the values of the school,” said Kravas. “So it’s a quick study [for Wise] to move into her new role. [It is a] rare, valuable, and a natural fit.”
But is this a job Wise would accept if she were asked to become the permanent president of the UW?
“I don’t like answering hypothetical questions,” said Wise.
Wise is not seeking the position. She said that if she declares herself a candidate in the presidential search, it would create confusion among the search committee members and the public, since people would question whether her actions and decisions have ulterior motives.
“This way, I can be pure,” said Wise. “I can do my job to improve the UW with a clear mind and [clear] intentions. And I can leave the school in a better place for the next president to take over.”
In the eyes of the public
Although Wise is not a presidential nominee, many believe that she may still be offered the role. Among them is Sen. Scott White (D-Seattle).
“People feel [Wise] is doing an exceptional job, and I would not be surprised if there was a movement to draft her for permanent status as president,” he said.
Because of the fiscal challenges facing higher education in Washington state, universities have been collaborating with one another and legislators more than ever to figure out how to ride out the budget crisis.
White says Wise, in particular, shares a strong relationship with legislators. “She is proactive [in] reaching out to legislators … and clearly committed to the core issues of access, affordability, and quality of higher education. That kind of commitment to your local school is really impressive,” said White.
Wise’s dedication to school values does not go unnoticed by its students either.
One UW consultant who asked not to be identified, said, “Wise is a good listener. Some people felt Mark [Emmert] did not listen all the time.”
“[Wise] is heading in the right direction with her plan to combine budget cuts and academic improvement,” said Carmel Caga-anan, a UW graduate student pursuing a Masters of Science in Medical Speech-language Pathology.
Caga-anan likes that Wise’s solution to the budget cuts centers on returning the school’s focus to its faculty and students. But until the legislature makes a decision on the proposals, she remains undecided about whether Wise would make a worthy permanent president.
“Since there’s no decision from the legislature yet, it’s too early to say if [Wise] would be a credible, long-term president for the future,” said Caga-anan. “I don’t know how well she can present the school’s concerns to make up the necessary funding [that the] UW needs.”
But for Caga-anan, who is Filipino American, Wise is a personal role model as an Asian American professor. Caga-anan hopes to see more minority representation in UW faculty, particularly at the doctorate level.
“Traditionally, professorship is still very much a male dominant job, but [Wise] has an awareness of other minorities and women in the academic field,” said Caga-anan.
Long before she was known as interim president and provost, Wise was a doctor and professor. Holding a Doctor of Philosophy in Physiology and Biophysics, Wise worked with graduate students in a lab researching the effects of hormones on female brains.
Although Wise is busier these days, she still teaches a small group of post-doctoral and graduate students, as well as two technicians. ♦
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.