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Stanford Report, October 8, 2003

Linguistics professor takes the helm of Faculty Senate


Tom Wasow arrived at Stanford in 1974 with a head full of radical ideas and a healthy dose of cynicism about the "rich white kids' school."

A lot has changed for him since then, however, and the former cynic now finds himself devoted to the university in ways that must have seemed impossible to him when he first arrived.


Linguistics and philosophy Professor Tom Wasow enjoyed the relative calm of teaching a syntax class earlier this week before chairing his first Faculty Senate meeting Oct. 9. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Inaugurating what is surely one of the most challenging roles of his long and varied career at the Farm, Wasow, a professor of linguistics and philosophy, will chair his first meeting of the 36th Senate of the Academic Council on Thursday.

"I have a very strong affection for this university," he said. "I think you need some knowledge of how the university works to be a [Faculty Senate] chair. You also have to care enough about making the university work well to put a substantial amount of time and effort into this new job."

A demanding workload is something that Wasow has become very familiar with during his time at Stanford.

Hired at a time when the university was establishing a linguistics program, Wasow, a former Fulbright scholar who holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Reed College and a doctorate in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quickly became a full-time professor of linguistics and chaired the department for a year.

In 1983, Wasow helped create the Center for the Study of Language and Information, a research center that studies the emerging science of information, computing and cognition. Three years later, he led the establishment of the Symbolic Systems Program, which he has directed since 1992.

His knack for managerial duties got him tapped in 1987 for service as the dean of undergraduate studies and associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, positions he held for four years. (The dean of undergraduate studies position has since evolved into the vice provost for undergraduate education.)

Wasow maintained a lower profile until 1996, when he was appointed associate dean of graduate policy. He held that position for four years, during which time he helped secure plans for more graduate housing.

Wasow was elected to the Faculty Senate two years ago; he previously served a two-year term in the senate in the 1970s. He said he was not surprised when he was approached several months ago and encouraged to throw his hat in the ring for senate chair.

"It's an honor to have my colleagues show this confidence in me," Wasow said of his election. "I didn't go looking for the job. They elect somebody and they typically choose somebody who's been particularly active at the university."

Psychology Professor Ewart Thomas, who served as dean of humanities and sciences while Wasow was associate dean, said Wasow's style of management would suit the Faculty Senate well.

"He has a way of asking questions that get to the root of a position," Thomas said. "He does his homework, so he's not going to be a passive chair. I expect him to be a little more participatory in the debates."

Thomas also said Wasow will be well equipped to handle any disagreements or debates that are almost sure to arise over the next year, judging from the way he handled controversies during his tenure as dean.

"He would be excellent at negotiating a common way that would be acceptable to most," Thomas said. "He's exceptionally good at calming down people and getting them to find the common ground."

Wasow doesn't anticipate having to deal with any highly controversial topics over the coming year, although the senate will tackle some thorny issues. The agenda for the year includes a report set to be released this fall on the status of women faculty; the approval of a degree program in bioengineering; discussion of new nationwide athletic policies; an examination of the increase in interdisciplinary academic programs; a status report from Vice Provost for Student Affairs Gene Awakuni; and, of course, budget issues.

"Everybody's very much aware of the fact that we didn't get raises this year," Wasow said. "I don't anticipate any major controversies, but you never can tell."

Wasow said he will try to focus the senate on meatier issues and leave the more mundane tasks to committees in hopes of livening up the proceedings.

"The one thing I would like is for the senate to be interesting," Wasow said. "The most common complaint I heard from senators was that they thought it was boring."

Leading the senate will consume much of his time, and Wasow will maintain a reduced teaching load so that he can continue to work with students in the Symbolic Systems Program, which combines aspects of computer science, hard logic, philosophy, linguistics and statistics.

He described the typical student in the program as "smart, broadly interested, intellectually alive and open-minded" and said that graduates of the program are highly sought after in the fields of artificial intelligence, computer engineering and software development.

"They've got a versatility and problem-solving skills that a computer science degree just doesn't have," Wasow said. "They're great because they're so flexible. The typical student is someone who is good at technical stuff but doesn't want to become just a technology specialist."

Wasow also will continue to work on his other passion -- helping the homeless.

He is vice president of a nonprofit organization called the Community Working Group, which will be putting up a supportive housing facility across the street from campus next year. The facility will contain 89 units of low-income housing and a services center to provide a variety of social and health services to residents and other needy people in the area.

"I'm hopeful that it will also play a role in Stanford's educational mission by providing public service opportunities for students," Wasow said.