Centennial Story 87: David Armstrong (Faculty, 1978–2014; Director 1998–2012)

The ink was drying on my PhD as Jan and I loaded three small kids into a VW van for the trip north to Seattle and our new life. Dean Doug Chapman had called me 7 months earlier to express regrets that I didn’t get the invert fishery faculty job, but said my interview went well. Two weeks later, he called again to ask if I still wanted it, choice #1 had backed out.

Second place was just fine with me and so, for the staggering nine-month salary of $7200, we moved north. One week I was a graduate student, and the next a new assistant professor in UW Fisheries. I showed up for work in my California attire of new Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and was quickly advised that an unwritten dress code might factor into my future tenure evaluation; I changed my ways…sort of.

David and Jan on a whale watching trip, circa 2016.
David and Jan on a whale watching trip, circa 2016.

I was immediately assigned some of Ken Chew’s new graduate students interested in crustaceans (my topic) and quickly learned the huge value of students in a faculty’s program. I had never taught a course of any sort and scrambled to compose lectures and labs for several classes—times have changed for the better as we now focus much of candidates’ interviews on teaching ability and philosophy.

With some highly motivated graduate students, I moved into crustacean programs that generally combined ecology and life history with major real-world issues. The list grew to include recruitment dynamics of commercial crab species in the Eastern Bering Sea, Army Corps dredge impacts on Dungeness crab in coastal estuaries, adverse effects of pesticides sprayed on tideflats to kill shrimp that were affecting oyster culture, impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on commercial crustaceans, advice to the tribal council in the Rafeedie decision concerning shellfish rights, dredge waste disposal in Puget Sound, potential impact of exotic crabs on local fauna, and many more. From all of this, 35 MS theses and PhD dissertations were written and I am very proud of all those people who were in my program. I’m sure I learned more from them than they from me.

At some point a tendency to have opinions about wiser ways to run a department overcame my better judgment, and so I competed for the position of Fisheries Director. To my surprise (and other people’s horror), Dean Arthur Nowell selected me to head the school in 1998. The School faced a challenge: a previous academic review done by the Graduate School was very critical of many aspects of the overall program and structure of UW Fisheries. Morale was low, we were silos within silos, and allegiance was to discipline-based “units” rather than the school as a whole.

David, with former students and colleagues Juan Valero (MS, 2002; PhD, 2011), Tim Loher (PhD, 2001), Lobo Orensanz (PhD, 1989), and Noble Hendrix (MS, 2000; PhD, 2003).
David, with former students and colleagues Juan Valero (MS, 2002; PhD, 2011), Tim Loher (PhD, 2001), Lobo Orensanz (PhD, 1989), and Noble Hendrix (MS, 2000; PhD, 2003).

What seemed a huge task of turnaround took concerted effort, but was achieved thanks to the united conviction and actions of our faculty. We wrote a strategic plan, disbanded the “units” and merged into a more cohesive faculty, changed the school’s name to indicate a broader range of science themes, and hired many new faculty in traditional and emerging fields of science.

I learned quickly that a faculty is a force unto itself, and that on a good day a director might persuade the faculty to take a particular action. Better was to put authority into the hands of highly motivated people—as chairs of leading committees—to push for change and reform, as I worked with them to define new directions. We achieved our turnaround and, 10 years later, the next academic review was glowing.

In 2012, after 14 years as director, it seemed time to step down. The school clearly needed a more quantitative director to maneuver through the emerging metrics of UW and the new College of the Environment as profound changes reshaped how resources given to departments were calculated. And so André Punt came to be.

Across the 14 years, I grew into the job as director and felt like the faculty and I became a good team. The most gushing compliment I received came in an off-handed way as a faculty visited one day to say he had accepted an offer elsewhere. After handshakes and “good luck,” he got to my office door and turned around. “I just want to say that you’re not nearly as bad as I thought you’d be.” There you have it…a job sort of well done.

David and long-term collaborator and friend Lobo Orensanz.
David and long-term collaborator and friend Lobo Orensanz.
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