UW Bothell’s Identity

The purpose of this Forum is to jump-start our collective imagination, and begin a campus and community dialogue about our future as an intellectual spark-plug for the region.

As we begin that dialogue, I thought it might be useful to put the topic of UW Bothell’s identity and potential in a bit wider context.  At the beginning of our existence in 1990, the identity of the UW Bothell campus was not at all clear.  We were different from the new WSU campuses that were founded at roughly the same time.  They were fully integrated into the home campus at Pullman (faculty members teaching at WSU Vancouver, for example, would be tenured and promoted in their home department at Pullman, even though they taught, worked, and lived over 300 miles away).  That physical separation created some operational challenges of its own to a fully integrated system, but identity was not one of them.  WSU was one university, geographically dispersed.

UW Bothell and UW Tacoma were different.  From the very beginning, our tenure resided at our own campuses, and we had full control over our curriculum and many of our processes.  On the continuum between integration and autonomy, we were much closer than the WSU campuses to autonomy.  But we were also different from each other.  UW Tacoma from the get-go took on the identity of the city of Tacoma that embraced the campus so enthusiastically.  UW Bothell, on the other hand, was located for ten years in a business park on the east side, in a site that drew from a wide variety of communities in King and Snohomish counties.  Our identity was less tied to a specific place.

We were part of a research-1 institution, but we were different from the Seattle campus. There were many reasons for this.  We had fewer resources, we had a different original mission (to serve place-bound, time-bound, and work-bound students), we had higher teaching loads, and we had a significantly greater service load that comes with being on a rapidly growing start-up campus.

I believe we have a comparative advantage, one that derives from our newness, our smallness, our autonomy, and our interdisciplinary orientation.  All those attributes are conducive to a high level of innovation which, if we play our cards right, could be one of the long-term signature attributes of this campus.  To get there, however, we have to be very clear about what kind of innovation we are able to foster given the constraints that define our existence.

It took me a long time to understand those constraints as opportunities and not just obstacles.  When we first started this campus, I argued for a whole lot of innovation.  My idea was that we could fix all the problems of American higher education right here in River City.  And we could do it overnight.  Boy, was I naïve.  Fortunately, no one listened to me.  If they had, we would have folded by the end of the decade.  Potential students simply would not have enrolled in a place they couldn’t recognize, and a whole lot of faculty would not have come here without the connection with a research university.

There were other constraints as well.  Soon after we started, we added professional programs—Nursing, Business, and Education—that were accredited with their counterparts on the Seattle campus and therefore compelled to abide by very specific disciplinary assessment criteria.  Other constraints were self-imposed.  Many faculty members, for perfectly legitimate and understandable reasons, wanted to publish in the most prestigious academic journals, which tended also to be the most traditional in their disciplinary outlook.

The result was that we began to replicate the curriculum and structure that everyone else uses, and it is very difficult to see how we could have done otherwise.  Yes, we are still more interdisciplinary and focused on student learning than most places, and we have done new things, even as we move to further departmentalize our structure.  So here we are, neither fish nor fowl, or both fish and fowl (penguins, after all, do exist), depending on your perspective.

To understand where we might go from here, I began to look to history for wisdom on how to be both integrated with a huge bureaucracy that provides credibility, resources, and relationships, and simultaneously autonomous so that we can adapt creatively to a dynamically changing world.  The trick is not how to be old or new, but how to be old and new, disciplinary and interdisciplinary.  The challenge is to find a balance that acknowledges the tension between these contrary perspectives but does so in a complementary and not adversarial or antithetical way.

The “old” is bureaucracy itself.  But bureaucracy embodies a fascinating paradox, both enabling and disabling innovation simultaneously.  On the one hand it is a veritable miracle of human organization, and is itself the product of a marvelous process of innovation to grapple with newly emerging problems.  To succeed, however, bureaucracies have to specialize—the more complex, the more specialized.  They promote efficiency, control, fairness, process, stability (i.e., risk-averseness), and loyalty.  These qualities are not good or bad—they just are, and we need them if the activities conducted by bureaucracies are to be continued into the future.

Those qualities can also be, quite inconveniently, death to innovation and creativity.  Innovation requires transcending specialization, seeing connections where others see only differences.  Innovation is inefficient (because it tolerates risk and failure), uncontrollable (because it needs freedom), unfair (because it doesn’t follow the rules), devoid of process (because ideas come from nowhere), unstable (because it is inherently out of the ordinary), and (potentially) disloyal (because it might not obey hierarchy).

The challenge is to exploit the enabling qualities and mitigate the disabling qualities.  History has some instructive case studies.  Sorry.  I’m a historian (a prisoner of my discipline!).  I can’t help myself.  The first example in Western civilization is the Church, arguably the longest-running bureaucratic organization in history.  It’s been around for two thousand years, even longer than General Electric.  And it did so in spite of moments of truly breathtaking incompetence, stupidity, and corruption.  How did it do it?  How did it manage to balance the integration necessary for continuity with the autonomy necessary for innovation and change (which is exactly our own challenge)?

It established branch campuses!  They were called religious orders (e.g., Dominicans, Franciscans, etc.), and they were the “skunk works” of the Middle Ages, sufficiently autonomous from the suffocating influences of the Vatican to enable them to respond flexibly and effectively to the deepest spiritual yearnings of the laity while at the same time sufficiently integrated with the body of the Church to preserve unity and continuity of mission.

The second-longest surviving organization in Western civilization is probably the university itself.  Here as well, there emerged over time a degree of integration in terms of curriculum and governing processes that preserved the identity of the institution, while at the same time granting to each university faculty a considerable degree of autonomy so that they had freedom to indulge their curiosity and adapt to new forms of knowledge.  But all too often they themselves succumbed to the pressures of bureaucracy and became resistant to change.  Many, if not most, of the scientific breakthroughs we now associate with the Scientific Revolution (and the Enlightenment) took place outside the intellectually conservative university.  The Royal Society, for example, came into existence as a place for interdisciplinary innovation precisely because universities were too set in their ways.  The key, of course (there I go again), is balance.  One very compelling argument for the current dominance of American universities in global higher education is that they have preserved a degree of autonomy from control by the state.  The American system, in other words, has achieved a remarkable balance over time between integration and autonomy.  But the need for balance, and the bureaucratic pressure for imbalance, are ever-present.  Every university needs its own version of the Royal Society that can foster synergy and innovation.

I don’t mean to imply that research universities do not innovate.  They do, but within their own constraints that come with the way that scientific research is funded.  The pressure to produce a great deal of knowledge in a limited amount of time acts to narrow the focus of research into smaller and smaller increments of study.  By itself, this is not a bad thing, and is in part a natural consequence of the explosion of knowledge.  What it does do, however, is discourage the consideration of truly fundamental, big-sky problems, or the exploration of hunches that challenge existing paradigms.  Like the proverbial story of the guy who lost his keys in the bushes but looked for them under the streetlamp—because that’s where the light was—we tend to ignore the really difficult questions because they lie outside the perimeter of federal funding.  It is in those areas that real breakthroughs happen, and that is the territory where we can plant our own flag.

J. Rogers Hollingsworth, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote a study for the UW Board of Regents in 1996 that looked at why most research universities are unsuccessful in fostering breakthrough innovation in the sciences.  I’m putting a copy of that study, entitled “Strategies for Excellence in American Universities: Implications for the University of Washington” on the Resources page for anyone interested in looking at it.  The encouraging aspect of his review is that our campus has implemented many of the policies he recommends (learning by doing, mixing faculty offices, not departmentalizing, etc.).  The challenge, of course, will be to resist the pressures to conform to the conventional model that rejects balance so in the future.  Those pressures are real and persistent.  We will be able to keep them at bay only if there is leadership at all levels of the campus committed to the long-term sustainability of innovation.  The purpose of this Forum is to jump-start our collective imagination, and begin a campus and community dialogue about our future as an intellectual spark-plug for the region.

  1. Brian Carper
    July 12, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Excellent writing Dr. Wood; you captured my attention and left me feeling inspired. I look forward to seeing how this blog progresses.

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