After more than three decades at the University of Washington, Dean Robert Stacey will retire at the end of the coming academic year. Stacey joined the College of Arts & Sciences as an assistant professor of medieval history in 1988, and went on to become chair of the Department of History, dean of arts and humanities, dean of social sciences, and — since January 2013 — dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. He has served on the Faculty Senate, headed the UW’s Advisory Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics, and chaired the University Academic Council.
As Stacey prepares for his final year as dean, he shares his thoughts on the enduring value of the liberal arts, his accomplishments as dean, and the challenges to come.
You’ve served in a variety of administrative roles in the College for the better part of two decades. Given that you received the UW Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997 for exceptional teaching, why give up the classroom to take on these administrative responsibilities?
When I asked myself how I could contribute most effectively to this institution, administration felt like the answer to that question. I've always enjoyed teaching and I miss teaching, but I can't do both well, and being an administrator is a way of serving an institution whose purposes and importance I believe in.
I also find that this work has interesting connections to teaching. Effective teaching, particularly in a lecture format, requires that one be able to break down complicated questions into analyzable pieces, analyze those pieces, and then put them back together again into a coherent whole in a kind of logical order. And that's an awful lot of what administrative problem-solving is. So in picking divisional deans, for example, I have always tried to choose people who are good teachers — not because I want to take them out of the classroom, which is a loss, but because they tend to have the kind of mind that works for administration.
A broad and deep Arts & Sciences education produces students who have the capacity to think in multiple different ways about problems.
In recent years, students at the UW and other universities have flocked to STEM fields. Can you talk about that shift, and its impact on the College?
We started to see it a bit in the early 2000s, but the change really took hold during the great recession. Since then, there's been so much fear about economic insecurity among students and their families. They feel they have to spend their four years at the University making sure they will get a secure, reliable job right out of graduation, and they are convinced that a STEM degree is the way to do that. As much as I disagree with that thinking, it is pervasive. In Arts & Sciences, that is reflected in student enrollments moving very substantially in the direction of the natural sciences and certain of the social sciences and away from the humanities and the more humanistic social sciences. We've done the best we can to maintain strength in fields that have been losing enrollments, but we are tuition driven. We can't ignore where student demand is. However we can, and do, stress the enduring professional and personal value of an Arts & Sciences education in all four of our divisions.
Can you expand on that a bit? What do you see as the enduring value of the liberal arts?
A broad and deep Arts & Sciences education produces students who have the capacity to think in multiple different ways about problems. If you're an engineer, you think like an engineer. Thinking like an engineer is a good thing if you're building a bridge; I want somebody designing it who thinks like an engineer. But if you're thinking about social problems — inequality, for example — there are a lot of different ways that you can think about those issues. You can think about them from an economic perspective, from a sociological perspective, from a historical perspective. And how do you come to understand the lived experience of someone who is not you? I don't know any better way to have that kind of empathy than through literature and the arts. Life is complicated, and all those perspectives matter and need to be brought to bear. That is the strength of Arts & Sciences.
Are there misconceptions about the College that you would like to address?
That math is hard and history is easy. That if you're smart, you do math and science. If you're not so smart, then you do humanities and social sciences and arts. That attitude is so widespread. I remember when my daughter was in grade school, she named who she thought were the smart kids in class. When I asked how she knew they were the smart kids, without missing a beat she said it was because they were good in math. I assure you she didn't get that at home. That didn't come from two medieval historians, which it was her lot in life to have as parents. It's just in the air around here.
One of the things I've learned over the years is to admire the infinite variety of human brains. That people have fundamentally different ways of thinking, and they put things together differently. And those different ways of thinking will incline them more towards some subjects than they will others. But the idea that, say, history is easy and math is hard...it's not true and it really denigrates the importance of study in the humanities and the social sciences and the arts. That would be the one presumption that I'd love to change if I knew how.
What accomplishments as dean are you most proud of?
I'm proud that we've kept the focus of this college on undergraduate education. It has been our consistent commitment. It didn't start with me — it started with Dean David Hodge — but we've kept our focus on the importance of educating undergraduates for all the reasons that relate to my commitment to liberal arts education. We've also built some really important new buildings — the Life Sciences Building, the new Burke Museum, the renovation of Denny Hall and Kincaid Hall. Those are all buildings that will make a really big difference to education on this campus and well outside it. And then I think we've done, as a college, a pretty good job of navigating fiscal challenges without surrendering to despair.
That’s quite a statement. Do specific fiscal challenges come to mind?
There have been many. When I look back over my career here, there's never been a period of more than about five years when we weren't dealing with some economic crisis. Most recently it was the great recession from 2008 to 2013. The College of Arts and Sciences had its own recession in 2016 and 2017 when the Washington state legislature cut tuition by 15%, and we lost 6% of our budget as a result. But despite the challenges, despite the cuts, I feel like the College as a whole has been able to stay focused on the importance of what we do.
How does private support figure into this?
Our donors have been stunningly generous. I’ve been in awe of their giving. Their gifts have made a huge difference in the competitiveness of faculty salaries through professorships and chairs, and have strengthened our research programs. Student scholarships funded through private gifts have become so important as decreasing state support has led to higher tuition costs. I often say that private support has been the margin of excellence that has made us not just a pretty good state university but an excellent one.
It is an enormous privilege to be part of an institution like this, and for all the frustrations of the job on occasion, it’s important to treasure it.
Amongst the big questions for the next 10 or 15 years will be whether that kind of private support, as generous as it has been, will be enough if there is a continuing decline in state support. Increasingly we are likely to be looking to private support not as a margin of excellence but as a way to meet basic expenses, which is a very different understanding of the responsibilities of the state versus private donors.
The current pandemic has changed our world dramatically, including academia. How have the past six months been for you as dean?
All the hard work is being done at the level of the faculty and the students. It's the faculty who have had to retool their classes in a matter of weeks to offer them online. It's the students who have had to adapt suddenly to a completely different modality of learning. What I’ve tried to do as dean is to be as calm and measured as possible, sympathetic to the circumstances that people are facing while reminding them that the work we do is important and that although we are not able to do it in the ways we would like, it's important that we do it as well as we can. I also encourage faculty to take care of themselves even as we're asking a lot of them. We have a whole quarter to get through; we can't exhaust ourselves in the first three weeks and have nothing left for the next eight weeks.
The search process for the next dean will soon begin. Do you have any advice for the brave soul selected as your successor?
There is of course the famous "three envelopes" story. For your successor you leave three envelopes with In Case of Emergency written on top of the pile. The first envelope says, "Blame your predecessor." The second envelope says, "Appoint a committee." And the third one says "Make three envelopes." I plan to leave my successor those envelopes.
But in all seriousness, and this may sound sappy, my main advice is to love this place and the people who are the University of Washington. It is an enormous privilege to be part of an institution like this, and for all the frustrations of the job on occasion, it’s important to treasure it. I’ve always felt that this job is an honor and a privilege, so that’s my advice.