Tacoma and UPS march arm-in-arm to the heights

January 16, 2013 

Tacoma is on the move again. You can feel it.

LeMay-America’s Car Museum finally opened to great acclaim. The Tacoma Art Museum is adding a new wing with a spectacular new collection of Western American art, thanks to a landmark gift from the Haub family. This year’s Pierce County Economic Index Report says we’ve finally caught up to the good times before the Great Recession of 2008 with a bright future ahead.

Housing prices are coming back, and the Point Ruston development is transforming the old Asarco site into a thing of beauty. The Port of Tacoma is booming just as the old Murray Morgan Bridge is about to open, promising to revitalize the Tideflats. Pacific Avenue is getting a facelift, and even the Tacoma Dome got its mojo back, power-washing away years of grime.

Sure, we still have our fair share of challenges. But right now the aroma around Tacoma is sweeter than Almond Roca. The mountain is even looking bigger to me these days.

A great city endures and rises to the challenge in tough times. You could say the same thing about a great city’s most venerable businesses. And this year we celebrate the 125th anniversary of one of them: the University of Puget Sound.

When the university was founded here in 1888 by a bishop from the Methodist Church and a former president of Northwestern University, their vision was to locate in Tacoma a center of learning equal to the great universities in Boston and Chicago.

And why not? A boomtown attracting the railroad industry, logging, mining, farming, manufacturing, finance and maritime trade should have a great university, too.

Over a century and a quarter, we have risen to the challenge. Since the 1970s alone, Puget Sound has been awarded a coveted Phi Beta Kappa chapter, classification by the Carnegie Foundation as a top-tier national liberal arts college and, most recently, designation as “A College That Changes Lives,” one of only 40 in the nation.

We have a faculty that has been awarded more recognition for teaching excellence by the Carnegie/CASE national Professor of the Year program than any other college or university in the state, including the first ever in 1985 and this year’s, too. Not bad. Especially at a time when we read everywhere that the fate of American higher education is in crisis.

Tacoma’s resilience is reflected by ours at UPS. In 1888, the year we were founded, there were countless companies flocking here. Many came, and many have gone. According to the Tacoma Public Library, the number of businesses that existed in Tacoma in 1888 and are still here today is just five.

Two (First Interstate Bank and Raleigh, Schwarz & Powell) have been taken over by large national companies (Wells Fargo and Brown & Brown), with home bases now outside the city. Another, Star Ice & Fuel (1888), moved to Fife in 2010. The only others are The News Tribune and Multicare (founded as Fannie C. Paddock Memorial Hospital, which became Tacoma General).

Then, there is the University of Puget Sound. That’s it: a newspaper, a hospital and a university.

Tacoma always was and still remains the city of this university’s destiny, and we are proud of the relationship. What links us together is not just a common home, it’s a common character and purpose. We are a restless lot, and we are a city that learns. We want to excel, improve, rise to the top.

“To the Heights,” the phrase that has been on the university’s official seal since day one, is still the clarion call that summons us to be smarter, be better, be different. It keeps us young, no matter how old we are. Both of us. When we celebrate our birthday this year at the University of Puget Sound, we celebrate Tacoma, too, our home town.

Thank you, Tacoma. Here’s to another 125 years together.

Ronald R. Thomas is president of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

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