Ana Mari Cauce has made a long climb to the top. The newly appointed president of the University of Washington was first hired there in 1986 as an assistant professor of psychology. Since then she has steadily moved up in the ranks, becoming provost and then serving for several months as interim president after Michael K. Young left for Texas A&M University at College Station. Washington’s Board of Regents selected Ms. Cauce as the new president on October 13.
Ms. Cauce has already set a tone for her tenure. Since a racist incident on the campus in February, she has pushed for a candid discussion among students and faculty members about race and diversity. She has spoken publicly about her own experiences with prejudice as a Cuban immigrant and gay woman. Her devotion to fighting social inequity runs deep, she says, in part because in 1979 her older brother, Cesar Cauce, a civil-rights activist, was killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.
In a video interview, Ms. Cauce discusses the university's new diversity effort and why she decided to use her past as a way to spur tough conversations about racism.
IAN WILHELM: I'm here today with Ana Mari Cauce, the newly appointed president of the University of Washington. Thanks very much for coming today, President Cauce.
ANA MARI CAUCE: Thank you for having me.
IAN WILHELM: Even though you've been appointed just this month, and previously, you were the interim president, you have something of a signature initiative already in the works. And that is one looking to fight racism on campus and really to promote diversity. And I wonder why you think that is so important at this time and at your campus.
ANA MARI CAUCE: Well, the initiative really came out of a series of incidents across campuses last year. In society, we were watching young black men, unarmed, being shot by the police. And in this day and age, there was very graphic videos of it. So it was hard not to have it in your face. And at the same time, we were seeing some incidents on campus.
There was the incident in Oklahoma of the young men singing a song that was clearly racist. And our own campus had a large Black Lives Matter march. It was probably the largest march we've had since the '70s, very affirming, beautiful. I participated in it along with the students. And there was an incident on campus with someone screaming out an epithet. We don't know to this day whether it was one of our students or not. But regardless, it was one of those moments when you stop and you think, What's going on?
Looking at it a little bit more deeply, we have this disconnect to some degree on college campuses. On the one hand, all the surveys suggest that this generation thinks that they're very capable of dealing with diversity. Yet at the same time, when you ask what do they know about other cultures, it's not very deep. And I think that there is a bit of a sense that, hey, we elected a black president. Look how enlightened we are. Probably magnified a little bit more in the Pacific Northwest, where we like to think of ourselves as enlightened.
But in fact, in many ways, we have resegregated as a country since the 1970s. And college campuses are often the most diverse setting that our students have been in. And to really take advantage of that diversity — because I do think that that's where a lot of the learning takes place. That's where the transformation takes place. In working with people across cultures, across disciplines, that's where innovation begins.
But we don't really take advantage of it, as Beverly Tatum talked about in one of her books. The title is Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria? And so I thought it was time to do a gut check, take a look at where we are, look at our campus, and really start having some difficult dialogues.
IAN WILHELM: With such a large and complex problem, what specifically do you hope to change on your campus?
ANA MARI CAUCE: You know, we're not going to change society on our campus. But I think we can make our campus a better place. And then as students go out into the world, they can create a ripple effect. I think that one thing that I think is very important is to really be able to talk about it, and to talk across differences. And I think that's often a very difficult thing to do because when you don't know a lot about what someone else has experienced, about their background, sometimes you make, quite frankly, innocent mistakes. But that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt the other person. And so I think as a result, we've done a lot of going into ourselves. And I really thought, we need to be able to talk to each other because that's the only way that we're going to build understanding. And so I cannot ask students to do something that I wasn't willing to do myself.
IAN WILHELM: And you have done. And I think you started this initiative by talking very candidly and personally about your own experience with racism, and how your own family has dealt with this. I wonder why did you decide to do that? And what reaction did you get from the campus when you had this, which came in a speech in April?
ANA MARI CAUCE: Well, like I say, I cannot ask students to do something that I'm not willing to do myself. And so to some degree, it was a modeling. It was also giving permission for students to do the difficult reflection. I think way too often what we do is we say, there are these bigots out there, these horrible people. And if we pluck them out of our campus, then everything's fine. And I think it's been very hard for people to even see the degree to which they might hold biases and stereotypes because it would make them a racist.
And so I felt it was important to model, to talk about the fact that, no, it's not something out there. It's something that is part of our daily lives. It's impossible to live in this country, at this time, and think that you don't have some stereotypes, that you don't have some expectations about what other people are like. And the first step to getting past that is actually being aware of them.
IAN WILHELM: President Cauce, thank you very much for being here today.
ANA MARI CAUCE: OK.