1-on-1 with UW president Gerberding at the dawn of the 1990s

Last March, Columns invited James B. King, ’48, who retired in 1986 as executive editor and senior vice president of the Seattle Times, to interview William P. Gerberding about his decade as president of the University of Washington. Gerberding, who is 60, celebrated 10 years as president in July 1989, and now ranks as the fourth-longest serving president in UW history. He and King discussed the past decade, what’s ahead for the University, the future of higher education and some personal topics. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

KING: In an article in 1984, you were quoted as saying, “It was my dream, my ambitions, my hope that if I stayed here 10 years, I would leave the University of Washington still another notch up that ladder and very competitive with the very best institutions.” If, last July, at the end of those 10 years, you had become president of, say, the University of Michigan, or had joined the Senior Golfer’s Tour just ahead of Lee Trevino, where would your dreams, ambitions, hope in the University have been on your personal ladder and the ladder of the universities?

GERBERDING: It’s an ambitious claim that I made there implicitly in 1984 and I think it’s probably boastful to say that it’s been achieved, but I do think that the last five or six years have been significantly better for the University, budgetarily and in terms of morale and so forth, and so I do think we are increasingly seen around the country as a major player among first-rate public universities. Through the early ’80s, when the recession hit deeper here and lasted longer than in most parts of the country, the University of Washington was widely seen as the sick man in the industry. I think we have now turned that around very substantially.

… So I guess I would say that it has moved up that extra notch. We are still some distance from being one of the handful of great public universities. Surely we’re among the four or five or six best public universities in the country. That is certainly the case. But to move into that real elite group at the very top is going to require still further infusions of substantial money, both on the capital and the operating side, because this is a competitive business.

This is a beautiful campus. It’s a splendid instructional institution. It’s been a research engine for years. It’s still a little uneven in quality. We have some elements of this University that are world-class, and others that are definitely not. I would say the unevenness is a reflection of the underfunding of the institution.

KING: Would you rattle off those elite, five or six?

GERBERDING: Well, that’s always dangerous to pick and choose, but we have a health sciences complex here that is probably second to none in the country. Our School of Nursing has been ranked number one in the last two major national polls. We have an outstanding School of Public Health and Community Medicine with excellent leadership, and a very competitive posture in the kinds of terms academics judge each other on across the country. And of course, we have a world-class medical school.

… So we have first-class health sciences, and not by accident, those schools are heavily bootstrapped by federal support. That’s an entirely different ballgame from, say, the humanities and the social sciences, where there’s precious little of that sort of money around.

KING: Is the University still in the top one, two or three in federal grants?

GERBERDING: Yes. For 20 consecutive years we’ve been in the top five …. Well, you asked for pockets of excellence—I can mention others. We have them in genetics and zoology and physics and chemistry. We have just had two major prizes in physics—our first Nobel laureate [Hans Dehmelt] and then last week, we won—David Thouless, one of our physicists, won the Wolf Prize, which is just a short cut below the Nobel Prize. So in those scientific endeavors, we’re very strong. We also have, of course, the Jackson School.

KING: On that anniversary month last year, Bill, your bosses, the regents, gave you a perfect report card —“a perfect 10,” as one headline writer put it, putting you in the company of those named “Bo”—Derek and Jackson and maybe even Diddley. The regents’ grading would indicate they want you to remain as president for perhaps another 10 years. Is there a policy that would prevent you from staying five years or 10 years longer?

GERBERDING: No, there is no mandatory retirement age. There is however, a longstanding tradition and practice at this and other universities that academic administrators step down at age 65, and I am quite confident that if I stay that long, that would be the end. There won’t be another 10 years.

KING: I’m told that most American college presidents last less than five years at one university. What is your formula for longevity—going on 11 years here?

GERBERDING: I think one important answer to your question is that I’ve gotten along well with the regents. The other is that I arrived here just before my fiftieth birthday, and therefore, unless I had left here in the first three or four or five years, I would not have had an opportunity to have a significant, long-term impact on any institution. And I was very happy here and so I stayed here, and the regents didn’t fire me. I have had—not to be boastful—many opportunities to go elsewhere, and I have only been interested in one of them and that train came and left the station in the early to mid-80s, and that was the end of that.

Gerberding meets informally with students in Red Square.

KING: And possibly your relationship with the regents is enhanced by that they’re happy with what you’re doing. Is that a possibility, too?

GERBERDING: I hope so, Jim. I’ll tell you what I have worked hardest on—I’ve worked hardest on our budget. … I have also tried very hard to stay in a mutually trusting and respectful relationship with the faculty. I genuinely believe that you can’t run a good, first-class university without having a strongly respecting relationship between faculty and administrations. Universities are unusual animals. Shared governance is a reality in a university and presidents who ignore the faculty or who patronize that faculty or who do not seriously consult with the faculty may keep their jobs, but they’re going to be in a lot of trouble. I’ve tried very hard to avoid that.

KING: What, in these 10-plus years, are you most proud of? And the following question will be what are you least proud of?

GERBERDING: What I’m most proud of is subtle and will impress some people as strange, but the thing I’m most proud of is that we came through this prolonged budget-cutting, recession-induced malaise in fairly good shape as an institution. But more than that, I mean that we didn’t fly apart as a community. It goes back to what I was saying about the faculty. In a time of trouble like that, it’s not so hard to get along with the regents, because they’ are experienced people who have gone through recessions and crises and I worked well with them during that period. But the faculty was being beaten up. Their salaries became increasingly non-competitive. The operating support of the institution went from bad to worse, and I was right there in the middle of it, doing all these “terrible” things. We came through the early ’80s in a professionally mutually respecting relationship. I’m more proud of that than whatever role I may have played in the revival.

KING: And what you’re least proud of?

GERBERDING: I think probably I’m least proud of two or three major administrative appointments that I have made that I would like to make over again.

KING: Salaries at the University of Washington at the end of the ’89 school year were 10.7 percent behind peer schools. It was stated that if the legislature acts as hoped, that the salaries would match the peer schools by June 1991. Where are we on that?

GERBERDING: Well, that, of course, suggests that we’re going to get a huge salary increase along the line we request. But that’s not going to happen. But we have made steady progress. We once fell as far as 17 or 18 percent behind our peers and I think that number is now down in the single digits.

[Editor’s note: The gap as of Jan. 1, 1990, was 7.1 percent.]

KING: Most of us are fairly well acquainted with the plans to spend more than a billion dollars for new buildings and other facilities on campus and we know of the expansion coming into branch campuses and broadening night course curricula and degree programs. But what do you see in the next 20 years in the way students are taught—the method of teaching?

GERBERDING: People have been talking audio­visual aids and computer instruction and so forth for years. A whole lot more has been talked about than actually done. But I do think that there is and there will increasingly be a substantially greater involvement of some of this exotic hardware. Instruction that involves computers is going to grow apace at this and all other universities. There will be other things—imaging, an area that this University has pioneered scientifically and in research terms, is going to be more and more important in scientific education, where you can actually visualize what you’re talking about in a three-dimensional way on a screen.

I continue to believe, however, that the basic instruction will be between instructors and students and what we will be trying to do on this campus is enrich that interchange between teacher and student by smaller classes, by better trained and better prepared teaching assistants.

KING: The University’s 26,000 or so undergraduates have a high school G.P.A. of 3.5. That, of course, is amazing and pleasantly surprising to me. What do you tell that alum who is a loyal, proud supporter of the University when that alum asks you to explain why a child’s 3.2 is not good enough for him or her to qualify?

GERBERDING: It’s not easy to answer and we do turn away thousands of students every year who could do the work here, but whose grade point average or test scores aren’t quite as good as what we’re requiring these days. We have an admissions system that’s a little more complicated than it was a few years ago. We take right off the top the very best students. We get all the 4.0 students and all those just below that level that we can get and we admit them right off the bat. Then we have a band where you and I would fit, Jim, of pretty bright people who aren’t right at the top of their classes. Then we choose among them. But we do have some discretion, so this person of yours with a 3.2, if that person had done well enough on the S.A.T., that person might have been admitted automatically or might be in this band for consideration. If that person was an all-around star in all sorts of things from debate to drama and everything else, that person might very well get in. But nonetheless, we turn away thousands every year, and all we can say to those people—to the parents and the students themselves—is that we have had an enrollment lid now for 20 years and there are only so many students we can take. Naturally, for the most part, we take the best ones we can get. By the way, I’m not complaining about that enrollment lid. I think the state did the right thing in capping the size. I think we’re big enough.

KING: Would that enrollment lid apply with the addition of an increased night-class degree program?

GERBERDING: No. We’ll have more overall numbers because of evening degree programs which are just coming on line. And of course the branch campuses are another matter altogether. This is one of the most rapidly growing areas in America. The state legislature and the Higher Education Coordinating Board have taken a very close look at that and they have said, “We must respond to this, what will be increasing pressure for higher education, particularly for this four-county area.” And that’s what the branch campuses are all about. They’re not some crazy scheme that the University dreamed up. They are an interesting societal, political response to lots of pressures that grow out of the increasing population around here.

KING: Last fall, a minority graduate said you lacked a commitment to minorities. You weren’t quoted directly in response to that, but in the same story, you denied having insulated yourself from the minority activists concerned about the leadership of the Office of Minority Affairs. What’s your response and analysis of that situation now?

GERBERDING: Well, that was controversy that grew up over the leadership over there, and the person who said that doesn’t know me and I think that was a tempest in a teapot. I have a considerable interest in minority affairs. I have had—I guess really all my life, but particularly in my academic life—I do believe that it is essential for this society to reach out to minorities and to generate more and more minority leaders and therefore more and more educated minorities in everything from political life to the professions and everything else. The truth of the matter is, Jim, that we have a very large minority program here. So if you just judge it by the numbers and what it is we’re doing and what we’re trying to do, it would be ludicrous to say that I or the regents or whoever doesn’t have a commitment to minority education, because it’s demonstrably false.

KING: Your position has been compared to that of a CEO of a large corporation. As such, your office is blamed for virtually everything that is seen as wrong at the University. And that’s the responsibility of presidents and CEOs. In regard to this reality, how much autonomy do you give your top people? How much autonomy does Mike Lude, the athletic director, have? How much autonomy does the dean of the medical school have?

GERBERDING: Well, of course that would vary across the various areas.  Let’s just take as an illustration student life and the vice president for student affairs, Ernest Morris, somebody I’ve known for a very long time. He does that job very well. I would say he has maximum autonomy.

In the case of athletics, less so, because athletics is such a high-visibility enterprise. It’s an area where a university can get a black eye awfully fast and where a lot of decisions are made that affect the public’s perception of the institution. Now, Mike Lude has an unblemished record of maintaining integrity in our programs, so it isn’t as if we have to look over his shoulder to make sure that he and his people aren’t paying off the athletes and so forth. He is a hard-bitten Marine, and he just doesn’t put up with that. But there are so many other areas, all the way from how you vote at NCAA conventions to how you divide up the spoils and so forth, that affect the reputation of the institution that I suppose it’s fair to say there’s less discretion there.

As for deans—the academic leaders of the 15 schools and colleges—they have a good deal of autonomy …. The basic flaw in any comparison between a university president and the CEO of a corporation is that a university is governed by the administration and the faculty. I have almost nothing to do with what is taught, who teaches it, what books are used, and after all that’s what the University is for. These are very fundamental decisions. They’re all made by the faculty.

KING: On athletics further, let’s take a look quickly at that commentary you wrote in the Washington Post. The headline-writers and phrase-makers summarized your commentary as a “play for pay” recommendation. In my cursory look at it, that seemed to be oversimplifying things a little bit.

GERBERDING: You’re a good man. Thank you.

KING: Would you like to comment on that?

GERBERDING: I was trying to say several things in that article. I was trying to defend intercollegiate sports against some of the more flippant and superficial critics that it has—and it has plenty of those. Intercollegiate sports has problems. There is an embarrassing level of corruption and so forth, but I think  intercollegiate sports has done a lot for a lot of people and I was trying to say something good about intercollegiate sports. That was one of my purposes.

A second purpose was to suggest that part of the problem in trying to get this into some sensible focus is this preoccupation with the ideal of amateurism. The idea that people who perform in sports should be impoverished thereby otherwise they’re not pure, strikes me as an idea that somebody is more likely to impose on somebody else than they are likely to impose on themselves.

Therefore, I said one of the anomalies of this situation in big-time intercollegiate sports is that you have these brilliantly gifted young athletes who are, in effect, the laboring force generating these huge sums of money, and you pay them a very restricted support level on which they cannot live. I think that at least in the high-pressure, high-intensity revenue sports where these people really have precious little time for anything other than whatever studying they can do and their sport, I think we should be paying them a monthly stipend of $75 or whatever it is so that they can make ends meet. The only ones who can make ends meet now are the ones who have support from their parents.

So I tried to put that in some context, too. I said, “Who are most of these young athletes who can’t make ends meet?” A disproportionate number of them are black. And here’s this big white establishment, the NCAA, telling us that we can’t assist them in any way. If a kid’s mother dies, you can’t send him home. If they need a hamburger, they can’t afford it. It’s too strict the way it is now. Whatever the rules are, they should be abided by, but the rules right now are too strict. And to say, “Ah, but then they’re no longer amateurs”—but they’re semi-pros right now. They’re being paid. They’re having their tuition taken care of, their books, their meals. They’re semi-professionals right now. Why not admit that, and give them a proper income for that?

KING: Do you have anything you’d like to wind up on, Bill, as to what questions you would want to answer that I haven’t asked.

GERBERDING: I think what I would like to emphasize is that in the last four or five years, the media in general, the business community, the political community in general—both Republicans and Democrats—have come to a realization that this is a precious asset, this University, that had become badly underfunded and they have set about to do something about it. I am vastly encouraged. Given enough time, this institution is going to be whole.