Sunday, April 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW president's job: Wine, dine and reel in big bucks

Seattle Times staff reporter

Mark Emmert

A native of Fife, Pierce County, Mark Emmert signed a contract to become 30th president of the University of Washington in April 2004.

Age: 53

Family: Married his high-school sweetheart, DeLaine; two grown children: Steve, 26, works as a financial analyst at Puget Sound Energy, and Jennifer (Joey) 21, is a junior at the University of Colorado.

Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, UW; master's and doctoral degrees in public administration, Syracuse University.

Professional background: chancellor, Louisiana State University, 1999-2004; chancellor, University of Connecticut, 1996-1999; provost and vice president for academic affairs, Montana State University, 1992-1995; various academic and administrative positions, University of Colorado, Denver, 1985-1992; assistant professor of political science, Northern Illinois University, 1983-1985; university fellow and research assistant, Syracuse University, 1980-1983.

Favorite read: Anything by historical-fiction author Patrick O'Brian: "I've read all 20 of his books, and now I'm going back a second time."

Biggest gripe about the UW: "Not enough people understand how great it is."

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — University of Washington President Mark Emmert is munching popcorn and charming his hosts, chatting about yachts, Outer Mongolia, the Nordstrom family and Charlie, the Shih Tzu bouncing around the room.

He's sitting at the bar inside Bob and Jean Reid's gated getaway. The Reids — who made their fortune mining gravel near Issaquah — are snowbirds, part of a wealthy set who winter over amid the brilliant green golf courses of what some there describe as "Seattle South."

Bob Reid's talking about a nearby home that's selling for $18 million: "The biggest bargain in the world," he says.

Later, over dinner at a French restaurant, Reid, 84, launches into a detailed description of his recent spell in the hospital. Emmert smoothly segues back to the UW nursing program.

The Reids, both alums, have already donated $6.5 million to the university, most of it to the nursing school. Just three-and-a-half million more, Emmert reminds them that spring evening, and their donor status will be elevated to Presidential Laureate.

"We'll arrange another time for May, to talk about more giving and how to best direct those efforts," Emmert concludes as the bill arrives. The evening's been a success, but Emmert needs to get back to his hotel: He's in town for only a few days and is booked solid with more of what he calls "friendraising."

Bringing in the big bucks is a key part of Emmert's job. Two years ago this month, Emmert signed up for one of the highest-profile public positions in the state, arriving at a time when athletic and administrative scandals had tarnished the university's image. Emmert was charged with turning around the public perception. He was expected to woo major donors, land top faculty and build a closer relationship with lawmakers. And, of course, ensure the Huskies win football games.

The stakes remain high and Emmert hasn't come cheap. He now gets $614,000 in annual and deferred compensation, putting him among the top-paid public university leaders in the country.

And there are perks, including a mansion that costs nearly $40,000 a month to run and memberships to some of Seattle's most exclusive clubs.

So far, Emmert has garnered mostly praise.

UW Regents recently boosted his salary by 5 percent. He's a quick study among academics from many disciplines. He can talk football. He entertains at donor dinners and eats pizza with students in the dorms. In front of an audience, he's suave, quick with the quip, pumps his fist for emphasis and rarely uses notes.

"With all respect to his predecessors, Mark Emmert is the best I have seen," says Bill Gates Sr., a UW regent and chairman of the university's fundraising foundation. "The question is, do you emanate a sense of confidence, have an impressive and appropriate vision for the institution and act like someone people would like to be nice to? Mark does all those things to a high degree."

Wooing a scientist

Gabriel Aeppli may not be a household name, but among scientists he's a rock star. And Emmert wants him at the UW.

Aeppli is an innovator in the emerging field of nanotechnology, in which materials are built and manipulated in spaces so tiny they're measured in billionths of a meter. That's the distance your fingernails grow every second.

Already the technology is used in products ranging from pregnancy tests to fabrics, and the potential seems almost limitless. University leaders know that stars like Aeppli can bring in huge research grants, create a buzz and attract other top scholars and students.

So when Emmert realized he had a chance to woo Aeppli from University College London last fall, he asked the state Legislature for $4.5 million to build the kind of laboratories the scientist would need for his research. For a single faculty member, it was an extraordinarily large request — one that Gov. Christine Gregoire balked at in her draft budget in December.

Facing an uphill battle to convince legislators, Emmert arranged for Aeppli to fly to Seattle in late January and spent the day with him in Olympia. Aeppli was impressed.

"I was very surprised, actually," Aeppli said. "It's very unusual for a person running a university that large to spend that much time with the recruitment of an individual."

Bringing the scientist to Olympia appears to have been a master stroke by Emmert. Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said meeting Aeppli in person helped turn the tide.

"It made all the difference in the world," said Prentice, who chairs the powerful Senate Ways & Means committee. "Afterward, I marveled at that direct exposure and how I was able to ask him a number of questions. We were in complete unanimity: We didn't dare let someone like this get away."

The $4.5 million was added to the Senate's budget and later approved by the governor.

As for Aeppli, he hasn't yet committed to moving to Seattle. Emmert is flying to London next month, where he will meet again with the scientist to push the UW's case.

Working the snowbirds

Back in Palm Springs, the morning after meeting with the Reids, Emmert is at the top of Frank Sinatra Drive, meeting Artie Buerk for coffee in the stately Lodge at Rancho Mirage.

Buerk, 70, a venture capitalist, mixes with Washington's wealthy elite and retains an encyclopedic memory of their histories and personalities. He's Emmert's inside man.

Emmert asks how he should approach one particular alum who recently increased a personal fortune to more than $100 million.

"He cares about being loved," Buerk tells Emmert. "If you show an affinity for him as a person ... he will do anything for you."

Emmert asks about another potential donor, this one a billionaire.

"I think he's a guy that's hard to get to," Buerk tells him. "But if you get to him, you are going to get money. With any of those people, it's like a club. If you get one in that community, you've got 'em all."

Emmert's checking his watch: more friendraising.

"Why don't you get us together for lunch or something?" Emmert suggests to Buerk, referring to one of the couples they've been discussing. "I think they would be great people to have in the business school."

Nearly 40 years ago, before he made his own fortune, Buerk was the first person employed by the UW to raise money from donors. He recalls raising $40,000 in 1968 — and spending $54,000 to get it. In that different era, many disliked the UW's image as a liberal bastion, he said. One anonymous alum sent dog poop in the mail with a note: "My contribution." By the time Buerk left 10 years later, annual gifts were up to $18 million.

These days, donor contributions have taken on an entirely new significance. State funding now accounts for less than one-quarter of the UW's budget, even excluding the largely self-funding medical operations. Each year, the UW's business model increasingly resembles that of a private university — one in which tuition, grants and nostalgic alumni pay for programs.

As part of that change, Emmert inherited a breathtakingly ambitious fundraising drive. The university is seeking to raise $2 billion from donors over eight years, one of the biggest campaigns undertaken by any university, ever. So far, $1.65 billion has been raised with a little over two years remaining. The last stretch in such campaigns is often the toughest.

At Rancho Mirage, Emmert leaves Buerk to lunch with Kirby and Ellery Cramer at a golf clubhouse inside another gated community. Kirby Cramer, cofounder of the pharmaceutical company Hazleton Laboratories, and his wife have already given the UW $3 million.

"We consider it a down payment," says Ellery Cramer at lunch.

"That's what I consider it, too," shoots back Emmert, to much laughter.

Beggar in a mansion

When the UW Regents went searching for a new president, chairwoman Sally Jewell said, they retold an old gag about the job: A university president is someone who lives in a mansion and begs for money.

The joke seems particularly apt in Emmert's case. Since he hired Provost Phyllis Wise last August to run the day-to-day financial and academic operations in Seattle, Emmert has focused more of his attention away from campus. By his own account, he spends 60 percent of his time on the road, much of it asking donors and politicians for money.

The travel costs add up: Financial records from Emmert's first 16 months in office show 23 trips, including two that were first class. Mark and DeLaine Emmert were reimbursed for nearly $100,000 in personal expenses, money that came from both state appropriations and private UW donors.

The UW also picked up membership tabs for Emmert, including those to The Rainier Club, the Seattle Tennis Club and the private airport lounges run by Northwest Airlines. At the Washington Park presidential mansion, the Emmerts hosted 21 social events last year, with per-event catering costs ranging from $300 to more than $10,000.

"The reality is that this man works like a slave for the University of Washington and frankly, so does his wife," Jewell said. "What may be viewed as perks is very much in keeping with what's needed to run a university. Entertaining night after night after night ceases to be fun after the first month. They're not doing it for their own personal entertainment."

But they are good at it and have quickly become a power couple in Seattle social circles. Emmert, for instance, meets regularly with businessman Bruce Nordstrom for management advice.

DeLaine Emmert has joined the board of the Woodland Park Zoo. When her husband was chancellor of Louisiana State University, DeLaine helped lead a $3 million campaign to rebuild the habitat of college mascot Mike the Tiger, and successfully lobbied Louisiana lawmakers to add money to the driver's license tax to clean up neighborhoods.

Since moving to Seattle, DeLaine has also earned her real-estate license and has begun selling downtown condos.

DeLaine Emmert said a presidential spouse can help make connections in the community and open more doors. She enjoys entertaining, she said, and finds that other people energize her.

"It's no secret I'm an extrovert," she says.

Her husband, on the other hand, says he tries to carve out contemplation time, both for himself and for his job.

"You have to enjoy being involved in social situations," he says. "But there's lots of evenings when I think, 'I'd really love pizza and a beer right now, and a good novel.' "

Nationwide trend

The increased emphasis on fundraising at the UW reflects a trend at public universities across the country.

"College presidents talk about it all the time," said Jacqueline King, a director at the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. She said the trend corresponds with an "astounding" drop in state spending per college student in recent years. Part of the reason is a philosophical shift in thinking about higher education, she said.

"What's got colleges and universities really worried is that policymakers are increasingly viewing it as a private benefit rather than a public good — the idea that if students benefit, they should pay for it."

Relying on private money, she added, can be problematic because donors usually specify exactly what new building or endowed chair their money should pay for.

"It rarely goes to support general operating expenses, like paying the heating bill or keeping the building clean," King said.

At the UW, as well as pressure to meet fundraising goals, Emmert is facing other challenges. The federal grant money that powers much of the research is becoming scarcer and has dropped so far this year. Last month, Emmert ended a two-year-old court battle with faculty over pay raises by reaching a $17.5 million settlement.

So far, Emmert has managed to avoid the scandals and criticism that plagued his predecessors, although a survey of 6,500 staff and faculty taken nine months after he began showed leadership doubts remained. About 41 percent of respondents reported strong confidence in the UW's leadership; 49 percent were on the fence and 11 percent felt the leadership was ineffectual.

And then there's the Husky football team's 3-19 record over the past two seasons.

Emmert seems to be taking the challenges in stride. He jokes that last season, he demanded a 100 percent improvement from the football team and got it (the team improved from one win in 2004 to two wins in 2005).

Next legislative session, Emmert will push to allow the university to raise tuition rates.

If legislators don't give the UW more money, Emmert wants to raise tuition by about 50 percent over several years for middle-class and wealthy students and provide more scholarships and financial aid for poorer ones.

Before then, though, he's got some crucial meetings with one person in particular.

That man is a wealthy California property developer who attended the UW on an athletic scholarship. Somehow, the alum fell off the UW fundraising radar and ended up donating tens of millions of dollars to education in his home state.

The alum has the potential to become the UW's biggest donor outside of Bill Gates, according to Emmert. With negotiations at a delicate stage, Emmert doesn't want to disclose his identity.

Call him the Big Fish. The one Emmert hopes doesn't get away this time.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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