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'A marathon, not a sprint': UW president delivers address on state of university amid pandemic

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce in February 2019.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press (file)
University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce in February 2019.

Instead of a room full of people, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce gave her annual address in the empty Intellectual House, a longhouse style building on UW’s main campus built as a gathering space for Native American and Alaskan Native students.

Wearing purple, she spoke into a camera to her remote audience.

Throughout her 40-minute address, Cauce touched on the university’s accomplishments, its response to COVID-19 and her plans to change how the university’s police force responds to low-level crimes.

The University of Washington continues to respond to a surge in COVID-19 cases among members of fraternities and sororities. Since the surge began in early September, more than 200 UW students connected to the Greek community have tested positive for COVID.

Cauce says the university is contact tracing, it’s following quarantine procedures, and it’s educating students about the dangers of COVID-19.

“The odds eventually get to you,” Cauce said. “So, please do not think that you're invulnerable and that as long as you don't take it outside, it's OK. It's not OK.”

The outbreak involves 10 sororities and six fraternities. Sororities and fraternities are privately owned by alumni. The university does not have the authority to close them.

Students who live in Greek housing are required to limit gatherings to a maximum of five masked, socially distanced people per week, even if they live in the same house. Students also need to wear masks in shared living spaces. Repeated violations of public health guidelines can result in suspension or expulsion from the university.

When Cauce was asked whether the university will defund its police department, she said the number of armed police officers will be reduced by 20 percent by the end of 2020. Cauce also said she wants to come up with a better way for students and faculty to report minor crimes that don’t involve the help of an armed officer.

For example, if a student’s bike is stolen, they need to report it. “But we don't need to send an armed police officer to your office or to your dorm for that report,” Cauce said. “So we're developing some systems for reporting online or possibly sending a campus safety responder that's not armed.”

In her address, Cauce also said there won’t be any tuition reductions because of online learning. She said paying for staff, personal protective equipment and high-speed internet makes online learning just as expensive as in-person instruction.

UW receives federal dollars, and when Cauce was asked about President Trump’s executive order halting diversity training, she said the university's diversity trainings do not violate the president's order because they are not divisive.

“At the heart of the executive order is the belief that diversity training is divisive,” Cauce said. "The kind of diversity training that we do here is very much guided in sound research. I mean, the point of diversity training is the opposite of divisiveness. It's to bring people together.”

Cauce says the university will continue diversity training for students and staff and will continue to stand up for free speech.

*An earlier version of this story said the University of Washington would not comply with President Trump's executive order, when in fact the university believes it is in compliance. 

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.