UPS, Tacoma benefits from joint lessons in citizenship

by Ron Thomas

Viewpoint: New head of private college prepares to nurture rich heritage,The News Tribune, Commentaries and Letters, August 22, 2003

When the August sun begins to cool in the breezes that will bring the colors of fall, most of us recognize a familiar feeling: School is about to start again.

This year, as I begin my job as the University of Puget Sound's 13th president, that feeling has a special significance. I am going back to a new school with a very new set of challenges.

My anticipation is especially pronounced as I look at the university and its city. Both have endured challenging times, have undergone profound changes, and now stand at the threshold of tremendous opportunity.

We are proud that UPS' founding corresponds in time with the incorporation in the 1880s of Tacoma, the so-called City of Destiny, as the first chosen destination for the Northern Pacific Railroad, the end of the trail for the great westward expansion into the Pacific Northwest.

UPS was founded by resolute Tacomans with a vision for creating well-informed and morally responsible citizens of the world. From the start, this has been a university that recognized and respected the link between responsible scholarship, good citizenship and strong moral values.

When I first visited Tacoma last October, on a quiet intelligence mission during my recruitment, I was fascinated as I approached downtown Tacoma, took the turn around the Tacoma Dome and passed under the Bridge of Glass. Looming to my right was the great cone of the Museum of Glass hot shop, while to my left the perfect arches of the history museum and the renovated Union Station faced me directly. Just ahead rose the steel for the new Tacoma Art Museum.

I was struck by the new University of Washington Tacoma campus amid the old warehouses on Pacific Avenue and by the new residences at Thea's Landing.

In a few short blocks, I witnessed nothing less than a cultural renaissance taking place in this city, right on the waterfront, before the still-active smokestacks, container ships and dockyard of Tacoma's past.

At UPS, I found an equally impressive story. Here was a college that this year alone has five graduates awarded Fulbright scholarships to study and teach abroad, together with two prestigious Watson fellowships for graduates to pursue year-long independent research projects around the world.

This year, UPS was honored with its third Washington state professor of the year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. We have a MacArthur Fellow in our history faculty and a Grammy nominee among our music professors.

We are planning a new state-of-the-art science building that will reflect our distinctive approach to scientific research and interdisciplinary teaching. We are launching a new master plan for our campus. We face demand from an expanding pool of applicants to attend this university.

In a challenging time for higher education, UPS is on the move, and Tacoma is one of the reasons why. As I learned more about the linked histories of Tacoma and the university, I discovered that one of the original sources of the Tacoma Art Museum was the UPS art department. Until recently we also shared a curator with TAM, and the museum's trustees include two alumni and a member of my cabinet.

The Tacoma Symphony Orchestra had its beginning in our School of Music under the direction of the late Edward Seferian. UPS faculty members were involved in starting the Tacoma Actors Guild, and the Museum of Glass board is chaired by a former UPS president who, together with other members of the community and UPS alums, helped city leaders get the ball rolling on this successful addition to the Tacoma skyline.

UPS is already part of the Tacoma renaissance. Our responsibility at UPS is to maintain our public purpose even as we cultivate the characteristics of a great private university.

Our unconditional commitment to the discovery of knowledge must go hand in hand with an unwavering commitment to cooperating with our neighbors in the North End, downtown and beyond. If it is to have any purpose, our search for truth must be joined to a quest for justice; our private mission must have public implications.

It's time for all of us to go back to school and learn once more the formula for success. I come to UPS with a strong commitment to the principle of the college as good citizen and a record of successful engagement with the city of Hartford, Conn.

What will "the college as good citizen" mean here in Tacoma? Our success in Hartford was based in our working together with our neighbors and with City Hall to determine where we had common challenges, common goals, common interests.

Our success here in Tacoma will be based not in our imitation of a blueprint that worked elsewhere, but rather on our creative understanding and our collaborative approach to the distinctive challenges and the remarkable opportunities we face here.

We live in a place like no other, and our accomplishments together will be like none anywhere. Our first assignment is to listen to one another, to help each other address these issues in partnership, and to forge solutions together in good faith. It's time for classes to begin again.