UW Annual President’s Address: Coronavirus, Awards, and Investments

Written by: Madeleine Jenness, Assistant Editor

The morning of October 12th, 2020, Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, gives her annual president’s address, discussing high-profile topics such as coronavirus, campus officers, and the inequity that has impacted marginalized groups during this pandemic. 

Cauce is presented by Robin Angotti, the Faculty Senate Chair. The speech is filmed at wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ—the Intellectual House—located on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus. Pronounced “wah-sheb-altuh,” from the Lushootseed language, the gathering hall of wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ is made of warm wooden planks, the gold to compliment Cauce and Angotti’s UW-purple attire.

Cauce approaches the podium and removes her mask. She thanks us for joining her, and describes how wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ is her “venue of choice for deep conversations with our entire community.” Cauce acknowledges that she’s on the land of the Coast Salish peoples, and begins her address to us. 

“I am keenly aware of the physical distance between us, but I know that no matter where we are, our community remains united by shared values, our commitment to each other, and to our mission of education, research, and discovery, and public service.”

Public service, as well as public impact, is a key point in Cauce’s speech. “I’m often asked about my vision for the UW, [which Cauce pronounces as “you double you”] and my answer has always been simple —to be the top public university in the world in terms of impact.” 

Cauce goes on to describe various rankings and distinctions the University has achieved. UW Bothell, as well as UW Tacoma, were mentioned for their distinction by Money Magazine, Washington Monthly, and CNBC for top schools in the nation regarding a return on investment. 

Cauce also mentions the Apple Cup, saying “while the Apple Cup lies ahead of us, our student-athletes already beat the Cougs for voter registration with 100% of our eligible student-athletes in football and basketball registering. Go Dawgs!!”

But there is a more important issue that we are still far out from beating: the coronavirus pandemic, and the striking realization of how unprepared we all were for it. “Since the advent of the pandemic, we have witnessed with stark clarity what happens to communities that are not built to be equitable, just or healthy: the outcomes are devastating.” In the U.S., Over 220,000 people have died at the time of writing this, and over 8 million people have been reported to be infected by the Center for Disease Control.

COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color. “In every instance, the suffering caused by COVID has landed disproportionately on BIPOC [meaning Black, Indigenous, and people of color] communities. The disparities in COVID impacts are the more-visible manifestation of long-standing disparities in everything from health care to education to economic opportunity.” As reported by the CDC, incidences of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths all occur at higher rates in BIPOC communities compared to white-non Hispanic people, except for death rates in Asian non-Hispanic persons. 

Cauce connects this back to that idea of the impact we can have. “No matter what you’re studying, be it contemporary African American literature, medieval history, quantum physics, or clean energy, I know you are making connections between your work and the problems and challenges we face. It might be the challenges we face right now, like the pandemic and climate change, or those that have been with us since the very founding of our country, like racism.”

Cauce also describes how remote learning inequity is an issue for UW students. “They may lack good internet access, technology tools, or a quiet space to study and attend classes,” she says, going on to say that students facing these challenges should make their professors and advisors aware. For “your success is our success.” 

COVID-19 has revealed much more than simply our un-preparedness for a pandemic, or how slow our Wi-Fi is. Cauce describes how Dr. Ben Danielson, a UW School of Medicine alumnus, described COVID-19 as “the great revealer.” Dr. Danielson says that rather than a regular recovery back to the way things were, we need to focus on creating an “equi-covery” in order to create a new normal. 

“An equi-covery will require meaningful infrastructure investment in communities that have been overlooked and underinvested for generations. The need for universal access to healthcare, high-speed internet, and accessible and affordable childcare and higher education are just a few of the areas where further investments are needed,” says Cauce. “In a very literal sense, inequity is killing us.”

Cauce also discusses campus-officers and a planned town hall to discuss various points that have been brought further into the public eye because of the Black Lives Matter protests. “I will soon be announcing a town hall to engage in a discussion of what aspects of public safety can be better served by non-armed safety responders.”

During the Q&A, Cauce responds to a question about the recent COVID outbreaks on Greek row of the UW Seattle campus. “I want to acknowledge that the majority of Greek students and leadership are taking the pandemic seriously and are complying with public health measures. And I want to thank those of you, not only in the Greek community but all our students, faculty, and staff who are being very very serious, who are following the three Ws, wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance, and also getting tested. And so I want to begin by thanking everybody who’s doing things right.” 

She goes on to address specifically those living in Greek communities. “They figure since they’re all stuck here together for two weeks, it’s okay to party within the house. And guess what? It’s not.”

“I want to be clear to all our students, even those of you who are in the healthiest situation possible,” she pauses, emphasizing each word, “the odds eventually get to you.” 

“The other thing I want to emphasize is we don’t know what the long-term effects are. So please, do not think that you’re invulnerable.”

“UW and Public Health Seattle and King County have recently reminded all our chapter presidents, advisers, and associations that there are additional enforcement actions if a student or group of students fails to comply with UW guidance and public health guidance,” says Cauce. “It’s also important for all of us to realize that each sorority and fraternity house is privately owned by a board of alumni. We don’t have the authority to close them.” 

Cauce concludes the speech portion of her address. “The struggle will no doubt continue in the weeks, months, and yes, years ahead, but there is no community I’d rather be engaged within that struggle. I know you will push me and hold me accountable. I pledge to put my sweat and tears, heart, and soul into making progress on the goals and values that we share. At times I will ask for grace as we seek common ground and work together not toward quick and superficial fixes but toward lasting change. As the proverb goes ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.’”

The full text of the speech, as well as a recording of the event and the Q&A can be found at www.washington.edu/president/address/.

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