Against the Odds

Posted by on Nov 14, 2011 | No Comments

What happens when you ignore common business sense? Sometimes doing the right thing pays off—despite being totally against the odds.

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of speaking at a local conference on cost benefit analysis for businesses trying to decide on which projects to start—and which to dump. It happened to be a notable anniversary in the history of an institution that defied common business sense from the beginning.

File:Territorial University of Washington - c1870.jpgOver a century ago a group of men in a frontier town on the edge of America had the audacity to start a university in a town that lacked even a high school. On a hill above the settlement, an elegant building with four Ionic columns carved out of cedar and capped by a bell tower, looked down upon herds of cattle driven along dirt streets. Pictures of the home of this pretentious foray into higher education look like someone placed a swan on a small mound overlooking a pen of turkeys.

The first class of about 30 students lacked a high school education so the first president, who also served as a teacher and part of the construction crew, spent most of the time teaching basics such as multiplication tables.

The pioneers in that town of about 250 white settlers ignored common sense and instead relied on a spirit of “go-aheaditiveness” to plant a flag of higher education in a town more noted for distilleries, gambling, saloons, and at least one house of ill-repute. It took fifteen years before the institution issued its first university level diploma.

Consultants of the day would no doubt have counseled against starting an university under those conditions. Fortunately for the region, they weren’t around to provide sound business advice.

The original territorial university building is long gone. The bell resides in another building across town and the four, white, Ionic columns stand tall in a grassy theater. 150 years after its founding the institution is ranked in some surveys as being among the top 25 in the world. It is a highly rated research university with a population of over 42,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Each year the school turns out doctors, engineers, artists, and architects. The ROTC programs turn out freshly minted Lieutenants and Ensigns including, once upon a time, yours truly.

Fortunately, some people ignore the odds and rely instead on go-aheaditiveness. Without those pioneers we wouldn’t be celebrating a notable milestone.

Happy Birthday, University of Washington. You don’t look a day over 100.

Related Posts:

A Bit of Attitude

A Little Faith

Thanks to this excellent article in the Seattle Times for much of the information for this post.


  1. Connie@raise your eyes
    November 23, 2011

    I spent years at the U.W. and never discovered this valuable history. (My favorite place on campus was Suzzallo library with it’s beautiful architecture and ancient books.) Thank you, Dennis, for “the rest of the story.”

  2. Dennis
    November 23, 2011

    Connie: Suzallo is a pretty amazing place. I didn’t appreciate it when I was there but have had a chance to go back recently.Several new buildings up.