UW President Ana Mari Cauce on being a threefold ‘first’ and the most important lessons of college

UW President Ana Mari Cauce. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

In the not-so-distant past, the idea of becoming president of the University of Washington was unimaginable to Ana Mari Cauce.

“When you look backward it all makes sense. But looking forward, if you had asked me as little as 10 years ago would I ever be doing this, I would have told you that you were crazy,” Cauce said.

In 2015, Cauce took the top role at the UW, an institution with 59,000 students, 4,300 faculty members and an annual operating budget of more than $8.25 billion. She was the first female, the first Latina and the first openly gay person to be president of the 158-year-old institution.

Cauce visiting Taipei’s Yehliu Geopark before attending the Converge Taipei conference in November 2019. (UW Photo via Twitter)

Cauce, a professor of psychology, joined the UW in 1986. She moved up the leadership ladder over the years, serving was chair of her department; dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and then UW provost and executive vice president, which included the roles of chief academic officer and chief budget officer. Still, it seemed to her like too many “firsts” to land the job of president.

Other UW leaders weren’t worried about her ability to do the work, managing people and operating the university, Cauce said. “They were mostly concerned about external issues, partly related to how people would accept me,” she said, including how she would be received by the state Legislature and UW donors.

It appears the fears were unfounded.

Among her accomplishments, Cauce has helped lead an effort to double the size of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science Engineering; helped restore and even increase state support of the UW following cuts made during the Great Recession; strengthened the relationship with Washington State University and the state’s community colleges; and secured funding for the Washington College Grant (formerly the State Need Grant).

In the last fiscal year, the UW raised $684 million in private donations, and in recent years announced a $210 million pledge from the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation for the university’s Population Health building.

In a curious twist on stereotyping, Cauce attributes some of her success to the fact that she doesn’t check just one box as a minority, but an intersecting mix of underrepresented labels. It’s baffling to some who might want to reduce her to cliché traits.

“My particular set of intersectionalities does not easily lead to a stereotype,” she said. “If you take the stereotype of a lesbian and you take the stereotype of a Latina, they take you in two very different directions. And so in some ways I may benefit a bit.”

At the same time, Cauce, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba as a small child, is eager to move past those definitions: “I’d like to think at this point people know me and think of me as ‘me’ rather than a collection of labels.”

Cauce also says that her non-confrontational leadership style has served her well as president. Her more laid-back approach can be disarming to someone who comes in ready to butt heads with their machismo on full display.

The notion of overcoming all those firsts wasn’t the only issue that Cauce needed wrestle with on her path to heading the UW. She also just plain liked doing research and believed in the importance of her work studying adolescent development with a focus on at-risk youth. But as she tackled new leadership roles, she realized that the two were not mutually exclusive.

Cauce with some graduates from UW Tacoma in June 2019. (UW Photo via Twitter)

“I am facilitating that work that I care about in a different way than if I were doing it myself,” she said. And Cauce remains involved in the field of adolescent psychology.

She additionally recognizes the power of the “bully pulpit” that’s afforded to her. Cauce is promoting interdisciplinary research and collaboration at the UW. A recent example is the launch of the Center for an Informed Public, which is led by professors in the Information School, the law school and  Human Centered Design Engineering. The center is tackling the spread of misinformation and disinformation, which aligns with Cauce’s passion for teaching students critical thinking, helping them disentangle fact, opinion and lies.

“The difference between high school and college, is in high school, you learn facts, in college you unlearn all the facts. There are no such things as static facts,” she said. “We need to learn how is data created, how is it analyzed. It’s not like there is a clear marker for what is ‘truth.’”

We caught up with Cauce for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location:  Seattle

Computer types: Dell, Microsoft Surface

Mobile devices: iPad, iPhone 

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Google News, Maps and Photo; FlightView; Alaska App; Dark Sky; Kindle; Notability; Zoom; Skype; iBirdPro

Cauce holds forth in one of her purple velvet chairs. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? Office with a desk for work, and four (purple velvet!) chairs around a table for small meetings. It overlooks Red Square so all I have to do to get motivated is look out the window at the students scurrying around to classes or other activities. The view of Suzzallo Library is always inspiring, especially at daylight and sunset when it just lights up!

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Plan ahead, but then take it a day at a time. Don’t stress out too much about what’s coming up as it’ll distract you from what lays ahead of you now.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? Facebook and Twitter. I like that Facebook allows you to explain things in more depth, and it also connects me to my friends across the years — from grammar school onward. I like Twitter for its immediacy.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Hopefully not more than a couple dozen.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? About eight a day, followed by a dinner/event meeting four nights this week.

How do you run meetings? If I’m running it, I prefer to keep presentations short and give hand outs ahead of time so we can focus on discussion. If we’re trying to make a decision, I want people to come at me hard and tell me all the reasons why what I want to do is wrong. It may make me change my mind, but even if not, I’ll know what the issues are ahead of time.

Everyday work uniform? Anything purple! Usually over black pants (on Friday I do black jeans and a purple hoodie).


A panel on leading successful, innovative organizations at the GeekWire Summit 2019 at the Hyatt Regency Seattle, Oct. 9, 2019. From left to right: Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington; DreamBox Learning president and CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson and Marilyn Strickland, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

How do you make time for family? My family would say that I don’t do this very well, but I try! I do set aside time during the holidays, and during quarter breaks and summer.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? If the weather is decent (light rain is OK) walking or hiking is best. Nature is soothing and gets me out of my head. If it’s too cold or rainy, just hanging out with the pets on my lap (a dog and two cats) watching junk TV, listening to the radio or playing video games — after going to the gym so I don’t feel too guilty.

What are you listening to? Mostly rock songs from my youth (1970s-’80s music ranging from Joni Mitchell to Jimi Hendrix) or Cuban music (right now, Daymé Arocena).

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? UW Today, Inside Higher Ed, Chronicle of Higher Education, Seattle Times, New York Times, GeekWire and Puget Sound Business Journal. Also look at Apple News and Google News

Celebrating the UW Computer Science and Engineering Center in March 2017, from left to right: former acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan, Computer Science and Engineering professor Ed Lazowska, Microsoft President Brad Smith, UW President Ana Mari Cauce, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. (GeekWire Photo)

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “The Moment of Lift” by Melinda Gates; “Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century” by Charles King, “How to Pull Apart the Earth” by Karla Cordero.

Night owl or early riser?  A little of both. I wake up at 6 a.m., try to be in bed by 10 p.m. — but read for a while, sometimes still answering emails.

Where do you get your best ideas? When I’m not thinking about work directly, often while walking or hiking.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? No one in particular, it’s all about what works for you. What I’m trying to work on is being less tied to my devices.

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