On Nov. 10, 2016, Pat Shanahan, chair of the University of Washington’s board of regents, delivered a message to students and faculty shaken by the election of President Donald Trump two days before: All is not lost.
“The UW knows what it is and all is not lost,” Shanahan said, according to meeting minutes. He urged the university community to come together and “stay focused on what’s important knowing there will be a lot of change.”
Two years on, Shanahan is poised to helm a very different institution: the most powerful military force on earth. On Sunday, President Trump said he would name Shanahan, who had been serving as deputy secretary of defense since July 2017, as acting secretary starting Jan. 1.
The appointment hands the reins of the U.S. military to a man who never served in it, but who brings a knack for tackling complex business operations honed over three decades at Boeing, where he rose to become a senior vice president in charge of its commercial airlines division. While Shanahan’s career in business has left little public trace of his political or policy views, his nearly six-year stint on the University of Washington’s governing body offers a glimpse into how he approached an array of challenges, from an ambitious campus expansion to student unrest.
As a regent, Shanahan was known for bringing a heightened focus on wringing the most out of the university’s spending, according to a review of university records and interviews with people who know him. Even to friends and colleagues, his political views aren’t well known. He has made donations to both Democratic and Republican candidates, but is not a major political donor.
“Pat was an active and engaged Regent, and as chair was a decisive leader who always sought to build consensus,” Ana Mari Cauce, the UW’s president, said in a statement to The Seattle Times. “Drawing from his work at Boeing, he was very focused on finding ways to cut costs in areas that were not as directly related to our core missions, like purchasing and construction, and was very supportive of our work on improving the student experience.”
Joe Buccino, a spokesman for Shanahan, said he wasn’t available for an interview. Though Shanahan has spent his career in the business world, he has long been inspired by the public-service commitment of his late father, a Vietnam veteran and longtime chief of the University of Washington Police Department, according to Buccino. A photograph of his father is the only one in his Pentagon office, the spokesman said.
“He talks about his father’s service all the time,” Buccino said Monday. Of his current appointment, Buccino said, “He was asked to do this and certainly felt a calling to do it.”
Shanahan, 56, grew up in Seattle, graduating from Bishop Blanchet High School, where he played football and impressed even his friends with his work ethic. “I don’t think any one of us would have ever thought any of us would be where Pat is today,” said John Augustavo, a childhood friend who now coaches girls varsity basketball at The Overlake School in Redmond. “He put his head down and worked his rump off, and we’re all super-proud of him.”
After high school, Shanahan earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington. Ramulu Mamidala, a professor of mechanical engineering there, taught Shanahan in several courses and found himself inspired by his student.
“What I am today, I attribute to him,” Mamidala said in an interview. “He’s motivated and encouraged me.”
Shanahan was best man at Mamidala’s wedding, the professor said. They never discuss politics. “He’s not a politician. He’s a management-executive type,” Mamidala said. “He studies the problem thoroughly, discusses with team members to get advice and then comes up with a solution.”
At Boeing, Shanahan built a reputation for turning around troubled programs like the 787 Dreamliner and became familiar with the military from his work in defense procurement.
“He was one of the best people I ever worked with at Boeing,” said Carolyn Corvi, former head of manufacturing for Boeing’s commercial airline division, who worked closely with him at the company’s Renton plant. She said he is “very capable, very committed to his country, and very honored to serve.”
In 2012, Gov. Christine Gregoire appointed him to his alma mater’s board of regents, which sets policy, oversees finances and guides the school’s strategic direction and its roughly $7 billion budget. The board’s most important power is choosing and overseeing the university president — including hiring, evaluating and, if necessary, firing him or her. Unlike most public university systems in other states, Washington’s legislature controls tuition rates.
During Shanahan’s time on the board, the UW went on a building spree, and construction cranes dotted the campus. It received $210 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a new population-health building, now under construction. It leveraged private dollars and public funding to build a second computer-science building, set to open next year. It opened a new life sciences building and an underground facility for animal research, and is putting the finishing touches on a new museum of natural history.
In articulating his goals for the UW, Shanahan at times drew on lessons he said he learned from his parents to “make the most of limited resources.” This focus on spending efficiently became a recurring theme in meetings of the board of regents. When university officials proposed a new life-sciences building in March 2014, he encouraged them “to get as much building as possible for what the University can spend,” minutes show.
When presented with an update on the campus master plan in November 2015, Shanahan said the university would “weigh the trade-off between space and money,” minutes show. In February 2016, he pushed for “increased quality of service at a decreased cost” regarding the development of an online service request tool.
Some problems, though, have lingered. When the head of the UW’s school of dentistry offered a plan to tackle its rising deficit in April 2016, Shanahan offered praise for “identifying the problems and pursuing solutions,” minutes show.
Over the last year, the dental school cut the equivalent of 34 full-time faculty and staff and still lost $2 million in the last fiscal year. Its deficit has ballooned from $29 million in 2016 to $38 million. The board of regents put the school on its financial stabilization plan, and its new dean says it has turned a financial corner.
It wasn’t the only UW division to struggle. UW Medicine, which brings in a large portion of the university’s revenue, posted a $76 million loss in 2017 when it had budgeted for $29 million in income, records show. UW officials have attributed the deficit to lower reimbursement rates from insurers, along with rising salaries and benefits for faculty and staff that weren’t fully funded by the state Legislature.
UW officials plan to press the Legislature for $110 million over the next two years to pay for raises of about 4 percent for faculty and staff, and between 2 and 4 percent for employees represented by unions.
In recent years, the board has also had extensive discussions on issues of race and equity — including how the university can attract and retain students and professors of color.
The meetings are occasionally interrupted by student protests. During Shanahan’s tenure, in April 2015, more than 100 students took over a regents dinner meeting at the University of Washington Club, demanding higher wages, a freeze on tuition and better working conditions. The regents and UW police were unable to gain control of the meeting, and the regents fled to a downstairs dining room in the UW Club, leaving plates of uneaten appetizers on the table.
A year later, in May 2016, several hundred students walked out of classes in the middle of the day, marched through campus, and briefly took over a regents meeting in the Allen Library. Among their demands: insisting the UW divest holdings in major national hedge funds and banks that hold investments in the private prison industry.
Shanahan was chair of the board during that meeting, and when the students entered the room, he stood in front of them and tried to calm the crowd. When that failed, he called for a 10-minute recess. The students chanted for a while longer, then left the room.
“Pat was a master at working with students — with protests and without protests,” Constance Rice, current chair of the UW’s board of regents, said in an interview. She recalled one disrupted meeting where Shanahan got up from the table to chat with the protesters.
“I really admired his skill in defusing situations,” she said.
To be effective as acting secretary of defense, Shanahan will need to draw on his people skills and business acumen, experts say.
“The hardest part of the job — the part he’s best prepared for — is the budget,” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor specializing in civil-military relations, who has met Shanahan. The more important quality, though, may be building relationships in the White House.
“He has the most important quality in this administration,” Feaver said. “He’s liked by President Trump.”
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