A conversation with Sam Smith
President Emeritus, Washington State University
Q: Tell us about yourself.
Sam Smith: My name is Sam Smith. The title I use most commonly is President Emeritus, Washington State University. I was the president for 15 years, and I set a series of goals before I came in there. One was to graduate a third of all the graduates in the history of the institution, which I did, and to build three campuses, and we finished that. I was approaching the ripe old age of 59 and decided that what I wanted to do was to help more people get an education. I grew up in a single-parent family on welfare, and at that point I knew I could go to any college I wanted to — and today that’s very, very hard to do — and so I got involved in a series of 12 boards or groups either involved in the education or the arts.
Q: Twelve boards! How did you have time?
SS: I founded four of them. That saves time.
For example, I worry about the fact that children from an average family aren’t going to be able to get a baccalaureate degree or higher. And our very future as a civilization depends on education, educating each generation. I’m a bit of a technology nut — people say I like boy toys. I don’t know if that’s the correct term.
First, a group of governors came to me in the late ’90s and said, “Would you help us design the next generation university? With the idea that we want to help low-income, high-potential individuals?” I said, yes, if you build it. They said okay. It’s called Western Governors University and it’s a competency-based online university. We got full accreditation in 2004. We’re limited in growth at about 40 percent a year. When we started out we had a little over 400 students; we have about 18,000 now. And my goal is to take that to about 50,000, which I think we can do in about five years. But again, an average person can take it at a third of the cost with the same accreditation as UW, WSU. The average student is about 30 years old. We can adjust for visual, hearing handicaps, etc.
And I was fortunate enough to get involved with Bob Craves in a group and we founded something that eventually became the College Success Foundation. Again, it’s low-income, high-potential minorities and women. We currently have 4,000 kids in college in the state of Washington on 5-year scholarships. And we begin working with most of these kids in their junior year in high school. We have 1,100 volunteer mentors. We mentor the kids through their junior and senior year of high school. And from there, we then take them and they can get up to about $3,500 for community college, about $6,000 for public four-year colleges, and $7,000 for private fours. We’ve done about 7,000 of these scholarships now. But again, trying to make sure that the kids — trying to show a pattern — that by mentoring and bringing kids along and with a reasonable amount of scholarships, that they can be successful. These kids predict at a probability of about 15 to 20 percent graduating college; with the College Success Foundation we’re getting almost 70 percent.
Q: You’re a busy guy.
SS: Well, I can pick and choose what I want, and whenever I go into something I write down what I want to accomplish, and when I accomplish that, I move on.
I wrote my retirement letter for WSU before I arrived there because if you know what you want to accomplish, then you get a lot of the noise out of the system.
Q: How often do you read The Seattle Times?
SS: Every day. I get up in the morning. I get up early and that’s my quiet time.
Q: Doing all those things, you must get up really early?
SS: I get up at 6:45, 6:30, and I get the newspaper and a cup of coffee, and it usually takes me about an hour to go through it in detail. That’s the time when I can think about what’s going on in the community.
Q: How long have you been a subscriber?
SS: Well, we’ve been here in Seattle 10 years this July.
Q: Is that your ideal situation, having that time in the morning to sit and read the paper?
SS: That is because I read the paper, and then afterwards, I go online and check a couple of other newspapers … I check The Seattle Times online first to see — I look for the little red lines — to see what’s been updated, and that’s how I start my morning.
Q: What’s different for you about The Seattle Times? How is it different from national papers?
SS: The Seattle Times is part of the community. What I look for in a newspaper — and it’s what I see here — is a newspaper that is part of the community, that is going to tell me what’s going on in the community having digested and thought it through. I’m not particularly interested in a news flap, “We think this happened Monday.” I want to know what is going on, I want to know there is a watchdog there, I want to know someone thought things through. If there’s an article, I want to know the person who’s written the article. If I know the person, then I also have a pretty good idea of how well thought out it is. But I want to know about what is going on in the community, and The Seattle Times is part of the community.
Q: What are your favorite parts of the newspaper? What are the first things you go to?
SS: OK, usually I start with the Northwest section because I want to see what’s going on with the community. Usually then, I’ll flip back to the main section, to the editorials, and I scan Newsline. And I have to admit, after I read that, I don’t read all of the full articles unless it’s something that strikes my fancy. Then I usually spend quite a bit of time on the editorial page. I’m looking for digested information and thought. I want to see what Kate Riley and Ryan Blethen are saying. I want to see what Nicole Brodeur is doing. Jerry Large I read religiously. There’s a whole series of writers and columnists that I read. I literally read it from cover to cover.
But as I said, I start out at the Northwest section, then I’ll go back to main section and Newsline, work my way through, go back through Northwest including the funnies, and then I’ll do a quick run through sports.
Q: Having that breadth and depth of understanding of what’s happening in our community, how does that impact you in terms of your ability to makes these decisions about education? How does it inform what you do?
SS: You take a community like Seattle, where there are maybe 300 – 400 people that are going to be involved with most of the organizations that I deal with. If I know what they’re reading and what they’re seeing, then we automatically share a common knowledge. Let’s say I go to a meeting at 9 a.m., and I know you’re interested in the schools — I’ve just read something about the consolidation of the schools — we can have a conversation.
Or, I also scan the obituaries because I want to make sure if I’ve just seen you and a relative of yours has passed away that's something I'd want to know. To me it’s a form of connectivity. So I can connect and go with it.
Also, I’m a little biased as far as newspapers. When I came to the state of Washington, I had been told early on by one of my mentors that if you want to know what’s going on in the community, go to the newspaper. I knew I had to build three campuses from scratch and I knew people in Seattle did not want to do this. So literally, I would make the rounds to the newspapers throughout the state where I’d go to the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, I’d go the Tri-City Herald, and then I’d work my way down … I’d go to Yakima, I’d go to Vancouver and come up and go to The News Tribune. I learned that I could follow what was going on in the communities, but I found I could get the best understanding of Seattle, the best understanding of the largest amount of people, by reading The Seattle Times. Also, I found out, since I’m an advocate for higher education and the arts, The Seattle Times has been the most consistent voice for higher education and the arts the whole time I’ve been in the state, and I’ve been here 25 years.
If I want to know what’s happening in higher education, I read The Seattle Times. If I want to know what’s showing at the Bellevue Art Museum, if I want to know what’s on at Fifth Avenue Theatre, if I want to know if it’s a good performance at the symphony, I know where to go.
The Seattle Times has been a consistent voice for us. And we need it very badly. I really enjoy reading it.
Q: You do so much work for higher education, and for people who have a disadvantaged start in life. Why would an independent newspaper be important for youth?
SS: Last week I had a visit with three elected officials advocating for higher education. If I know what they were doing, which I did, and I know the stance that they’ve taken on these issues, then I know how to approach them. It helps me accomplish what I want to accomplish because I can trust what I read in The Seattle Times. For instance, if I know that two schools are going to be consolidated, then when I’m sitting down talking to the school superintendent, I know not to bring up the subject of what they plan to do to grow next year. It gives me the background information and the knowledge to help me become a more effective advocate of higher education.
Let me go back to the arts. I like all sorts of media. I’m not against it, but where else can you find out about performances? I’m sorry, I don’t see the listings on TV. I don’t see a review, either. I want to know what others think and recommend. So I go and just read the newspaper.
And also, I know some of the columnists. It’s funny, I’ve known Kate Riley since she was at the Tri-City Herald. You have some of these columnists where you’ve gotten to know them and you say, I wonder what Kate says about that. OK, I know a little about Kate, about her family and a number of things. In some areas, I know that she knows a little bit more than most people.
If I want to read something by Jerry Large, I know him well enough to know how he thinks. So you look for them almost like friends. But a local community newspaper like this has a personality. It’s part of the community, it gives you the information you need to effectively work in the community. I’m a retiree, so I’ve got to work through other people. I’ve got to be able to sit down and convince you that this is a good idea. And if I know a bit about you, what you know, know what you’re doing, then I’ll be more effective.
Q: Tell us about the Sunday newspaper. Is the Sunday newspaper a different experience for you?
SS: About a half an hour difference.
In some ways, but not dramatically. I’ll go through the Saturday newspaper over the weekend. Probably the Saturday edition is a little more different in my mind than the Sunday newspaper. But I’m going to take it and go through and read it. Get a little bit more in the Sunday newspaper, but still the same basic function. But again, I’m probably one of those people who read it from cover to cover.
Q: That’s a lot of time.
SS: I’ve been kidded that I don’t walk across a room without a purpose in mind. I wouldn’t take the time to read it if I didn’t think it was useful to me. Because my goal is to help more people get educated and to promote the arts, and it helps me do that.
Q: Why is having a locally owned newspaper like The Seattle Times important to a community?
SS: I travel a lot. I mentioned I’ve been traveling around the country for the Sloan Foundation. We’re looking at 43 universities and what they’re doing with technology, etc.
If you have one of these chain newspapers, I’m sorry, I can get that information anywhere. It really doesn’t tell me about the local community. If I’m going to be in Columbus, Ohio, and I’m going to be meeting you for lunch, if I read the newspaper, a chain newspaper doesn’t help me. Unless there’s a big scandal, I can ask you about or something, it really doesn’t help me. And also, they don’t know the community. I want the people writing this information down to know a little bit about the background of the person they’re dealing with. I want them to know their history.
Let me give you an example: One of the things that I do here at Washington State University is that I’m the corporate memory. Now at the other end of the hallway there’s about 20 development people and others, and their average age is 25. It’s very common that they come and knock on the door and say, “Sam, who is so-and-so and what have they done?”
When I read the newspaper, I want to know it’s written by people who know some of the background, some of the history on it.
I want somebody who knows that kind of background. I want the news digested by somebody I trust. And these newspapers that are chain newspapers, well, if I’m traveling, it takes me about 10 minutes to read the newspaper. That’s it. I’ll skim through, look at the stock market and I’ll look at a few things. But I’m not going to bother reading it because it doesn’t give me what I need.
I want local, useful information from people with a history in the community that can help me accomplish what I want to accomplish.
Q: You’ve been part of the community long enough to see the transformation of media. Can you talk about your experience using print and online? What’s the difference to you in terms of how we serve people that way?
SS: I use the print for the reason we just talked about. I use online more for the point of view of what’s happening now. Keep in mind that this is a guy that does a whole lot with technology and using teaching.
Q: In terms of the impact on policymaking, you directly see the correlation when The Seattle Times shines a spotlight on a specific issue or area in the community that affects policy, and how that holds leaders accountable. Can you talk a little about that?
SS: Let’s take this legislative session as an example where we were going through the arguments with the budgets. If there’s an editorial in The Seattle Times that says we need to support higher education — which I’ve probably said to 20 legislators — I’ll carry that editorial with me when I meet with them that day. I say, now keep in mind, The Seattle Times is now the second largest newspaper on the West Coast, second only to the Los Angeles Times. Mr. or Ms. Legislator, you need to get reelected, and this is what the newspaper that represents your people is saying. This is what the people in your district are reading. Now, I know that you want to represent your district, and so I can take it with me. In many ways it represents the thought process of many people in this area.
Q: The watchdog journalism and investigative reporting, that’s important to you?
SS: Yes, it’s very important. There’s an old quote, I think it was Lou Pepper who said: “If you have a question about whether you should do something or not, would your mother be happy reading it on the front page of the newspaper?” If you don’t think she would, don’t do it.
The thing is, I want to know what you really think. I want to know what the newspaper thinks. I’ll read it, I’ll look at it, I’ll assume the facts are right because if not, someone else will call it or you’ll call it, but after it’s digested I want to know what you think. Let’s take the shooting of the fellow who killed the Lakewood officers. The community reacted in many ways, in a very different manner than it might have if it hadn’t been for the newspaper. The newspaper just put all the facts out, including the facts about all of the relatives that were involved.
Q: You have a bit of a different perspective; you’re part of The Seattle Times board, you know some of the columnists much more closely than most of the community. Is there anything else you’d like to address or express?
SS: I think one of the key things is we have to make sure that this family-owned, locally owned newspaper needs to be passed on to the next generation and it needs to continue. I value it for all of the reasons I mentioned. I see this as becoming less and less common over the next decade. And I think we have to make sure ownership stays local and independent because if it doesn’t, I think we’ll have a tremendous loss. Now there are the results of some of the reorganization that’s going on now, and it’ll be very positive. Don’t believe everything you read about newspapers going out of business. I think many of the newspapers that are doing what I call “surface” coverage, I think they’ll go out of business. And that doesn’t bother me at all. The ones that I want to see stay are the ones that are part of the community and are actually helping the community. The Seattle Times in my biased opinion has been the single, most consistent voice in supporting higher education and the arts that I’ve ever seen. That’s an issue for me. I would like to see that continue forever. I do a lot of work with families. When you live amongst the young, you spend a lot of time thinking about mom and dad and the kids, and you see the differences between them and see what’s going on, and you spend a lot of time watching these kids grow up. You hope that they’ve achieved or learned some of the values of their parents and have adjusted them for the times. Because how you live today and what you think about is very different than my generation. I talk a great deal about technology, and I talk about things online. And when I do, I always ask the audience to take out their handhelds, to hold them up and show them to me because I want to see how many mobile devices there are. And then I ask them each to visibly punch in a number. If they use one of these fingers (holds up index fingers), I know how to talk to them. If they use their thumbs, they get a completely different talk. The values are the same, but I change the terminology and I change the perspective.
Let’s go back to the newspaper: We have this generation going now, and this generation coming in. I hope that this generation does wonderful things with it, but I hope they keep some of the values. But it will be very different, and that’s fun.
Change is fun.