How do you summarize 16 years of superlative service to the University of a Thousand Years? William P. Gerberding has put his imprint on the University of Washington as few presidents have. We could devote an entire issue to a catalog of his accomplishments, and that would only be a start.
Instead of long lists and tributes, we’ve asked the President to reflect on his decade and a half in his own words. He graciously agreed to have three hour-long interviews with Richard Larsen, a retired Seattle Times reporter and editor who has a special interest in higher education. During these conversations, President Gerberding shared some of his proudest moments and darkest disappointments with Larsen and now he shares them with us. He also gives Columns readers a warning about the future of higher education and the University in the wake of spending-limit Initiative 601.
To accompany the article, I prepared a timeline covering the highs and lows of the last 16 years—both on campus and in the world. I ransacked University records and press releases, tracked down Associated Press news stories and back issues of Time magazine, and picked apart the collective memories of many UW professors, staff and alumni.
Just as it is impossible to summarize President Gerberding’s contributions in eight or nine pages, it is a daunting task to cover the momentous era from 1979 to the present. Some moments are indelible, such as the eruption of Mount St. Helens, John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan or the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.
There were events once thought miraculous that now seem commonplace, such as when the UW Medical Center delivered its first babies conceived through in vitro fertilization (twins) or conducted its first heart transplant (on laborer Joseph Gardiner). Others moments may be meaningless to some, poignant to others. Few of us were in the HUB Ballroom on Feb. 25, 1989, when an obscure rock band called Nirvana was the opening act (the rest of the bill included The Fluid, Girl Trouble and Skinyard). Still other events changed forever the fate of the University, such as when the first UW professor won a Nobel Prize (Hans Dehmelt in physics), or when a $12-million gift from Microsoft CEO Bill Gates launched the Department of Molecular Biotechnology.
Through it all, Gerberding’s steady hand steered the UW through sometimes troubled waters, guiding it to “the top rank of American public universities,” according to a panel of 17 college educators who recently reviewed the entire University. For this leadership, those who hold the University of Washington dear owe him their deep thanks.