UW president breaking barriers

by: Dave Wagner Updated:

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SEATTLE - Seattle's most accomplished Cuban immigrant is arguably Ana Mari Cauce, the president of the University of Washington. She's the first woman, the first Latina and the first openly-gay UW president, when all of her predecessors have only ever been white men. She wasn't lured to campus from a university far away, either. She's the first permanent president in a generation to be selected from within the faculty ranks.

"I'm very gratified by being president of this university," she said. "It is an incredible honor. This is a place that I made my life here. It nurtured me. I see how it does that to millions of students. What it does for our city, our state, the world, and to be able to be the face of the university is just beyond my imagination. To the degree that my being president allows other students of color, women, gay students to see themselves in a position that they thought was potentially out of their reach, if I can be a model to anybody, I take enormous pleasure in that. These are students that I care deeply about."

Cauce first came to campus in 1986 as a psychology professor. Since then, the university's reputation has grown dramatically. In 2015, Reuters ranked it 4th on a global list of most innovative universities (after Stanford, MIT and Harvard). During that same year, UW research grants brought in $1.5 billion in funding, which Cauce describes as a major shot in the arm to the Seattle economy, because each research project is essentially like a small business in terms of employment. Enrollment at UW campuses in Seattle, Tacoma and Bothell is the highest it's ever been.

"But there are also a lot of stereotypes about the university," she said. "[The stereotypes are] it's elitist. It's arrogant. It's impossible to get in. We only care about ideas and not about people. We care about research."

Cause said she's looking for "kids with heart" when considering applicants to the University of Washington. "Kids who are willing to work really hard. Kids who are willing to take risks," she said. In fact, Cauce is adamant that she has no interest in raising the average GPA or the average SAT scores of incoming students.

"I know this is blasphemy for a leader of a university to say," she admitted. "But they're plenty good. Our students are really good. They don't lack intellectual firepower. What we really want to do is attract students that are coming to make an impact."

To better understand the remarkable journey of Ana Mari Cauce requires going back nearly 60 years and 27-hundred miles to a life that began in Cuba. Her father was Vicente Cauce, the minister of education in the cabinet of Fulgencio Batista. Most of Batista's ministers had advance warning that there was going to be a coup on New Year's Eve 1959. Ana Mari Cauce describes it as a "Godfather II moment."

"I am very much a product of the immigrant experience," Cauce said. "In many ways, I feel like I'm proof of the American Dream. This was not any place where I expected to be, but I also think that some of the things that I value the most really did come out of that experience."

Cauce learned early the value of education. Her father had a Ph.D., but his education in Cuba did not help him the moment he arrived in the United States. Vicente Cauce worked as a custodian and later in a shoe factory in south Florida, while he and his wife were raising their two children: Ana Mari and her older brother Cesar.

Cesar Cauce graduated Magna Cum Laude from Duke University, and became a civil rights activist who worked with labor unions in the 1970's. Ana Mari Cauce said that put him on the wrong side of the Ku Klux Klan. He and five others were murdered in what became known as the Greensboro Massacre in November 1979.

"I struggled, badly for a while," she said. "I don't know quite how to describe the impact of something like that. I miss him most during the good times. I can't begin to tell you how much I'd like to share this [her UW presidency] with him. He's a real source of inspiration for me. I honestly try to live for both of us."

Grief never leaves the heart of Ana Mari Cauce and neither does the gratitude for the love she found in the Pacific Northwest. She met her wife, a fellow UW professor, in 1989. Their first date was on campus: at the dining hall By George and in the cafe at the Burke Museum. In 2014, they celebrated their 25th anniversary together, and were married following Washington's statewide vote on marriage equality.

"I think it would be very hard to do this job without someone that loves you and supports you, and that you can love and support," she said.

Cauce said the biggest challenge when she was coming out was with her parents. They had experienced the death of their son, and Cauce thinks that made them partly scared of the world, in general.

"My mom told me she felt like she'd lost her other child, and I was deeply wounded," she recalled. "But I also understood it. It came from love, as twisted as it may have come out. She was worried that it meant I couldn't do something like this [serve as president of the University of Washington]. It was a difficult road, but we ended up getting to a good place."

While Cauce ushers in a new era of diversity to the president's office, she recently launched a race and equity initiative on campus. The goal is to create an inclusive experience for students, faculty and staff. Cauce admits her campus is not as diverse as she would like.

"I don't think this campus reflects the diversity that we have in the world to the degree that I'd like it to," she said.

Cauce is motivated most by her students -- the thousands she's taught over the years, and the 45-thousand enrolled at UW during the 2015-2016 academic year.

"We're making the future, building the future through our research, and we're doing it by building our future leaders, and there's nothing more motivating than that."