Distinguished Staff Award
Photograph of Deborah Harper

Deborah Harper

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Nominated by Anthony Curreri, Programmer Analyst, Strategy and Information Management, Academic Personnel

Awarded 2012

I am writing to nominate Deborah Harper for the University of Washington’s Distinguished Staff Award. Deb started as the Program Manager for TransNow at the end of 2009, coming to us from the department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. Deb quickly noticed that employee morale was low, and began the hard work to improve the situation. She met with staff personally and encouraged us to talk about the issues we were having. Once she identified the issues, she did everything she could to rectify them. Deb invited the staff into her home for a staff retreat to do team building exercises. She even offered me a short-term loan when we found out the payroll system mistakenly hadn’t paid me one payday. She always made sure each of us was taken care of, going way above and beyond and putting herself personally on the line.

When she realized that we were all getting sick more than we should, she figured out that our windowless office wasn’t getting any fresh air from the recirculation vents. It took some perseverance to get facilities to address the issue (and when they did, it rained dead flies and dust on us for a few days), but after that it was a huge improvement. She also pushed for remodeling a new office space in our existing building, More Hall. Once finished, our new space had natural light as well as fresh air, and the employees couldn’t have been happier!

“Deb Harper showed the ability to make order out of chaos. I found that she was an inspiration to work for because she never gave up on expecting the most professional product from our department.” (Thalia Freamon) She gained our trust and admiration with her tireless efforts to improve our working situation. As if improving employee relations and managing a remodel and an office move weren’t enough, it was quickly becoming clear that we were trudging blindly into a budget-cut minefield; the program needed to innovate and Deb stepped up to the plate. TransNow was long accustomed to continued funding; we were doing some good research, but not communicating that. Deb sold upper management on something that was sorely needed: a complete website redesign. We contracted with UW’s Creative Communications for a Drupal site, still live at: http://www.transnow.org.

As the computer guy for the group, I was surprised that she contracted out the site design instead of having me do it. She made the right decision; we not only got a much more graphically beautiful site than I could have built, it also encouraged me to learn Drupal, and freed up my time to create an online financial module for our RFP system, which fixed a problem identified in an audit (another challenge Deb dealt with expertly). I was pleased to learn about budgets and have another project to put on my resume, as well.

“Deb encouraged us to grow professionally and she was always willing to undertake many challenges, even beyond her responsibilities, to achieve higher goals or help others get there.” (Larisa Petrik) Deb encouraged Larisa to continue her education, and then gave her more responsibility. Larisa managed all the financial aspects for our large, complex federal grant, and Deb had her title suitably upgraded from Fiscal Specialist to Budget Analyst. She recognized that the Program Assistant, Rebekah Diana, had taken on more responsibility too, and upgraded her title to Program Coordinator. Changing a position’s title is no easy task, and that she identified and pursued two different title changes says a lot about Deb as a manager.

“She is extremely dedicated to her work. In whatever capacity she thinks of, she attempts to build up programs with creative and innovative ideas for growth. She is committed to serving clients, whoever they may be.” (Rebekah Diana) I can think of no better example of this than her Haxton Trail video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4og_ljlwv8). While looking for ways to communicate the importance of transportation research, she happened to sit next to a representative of the Lummi Nation on an airplane trip. When she told him she worked in transportation research, he told her about a project they had just completed on the reservation, a multi-year project to install a pedestrian path with environmentally-friendly solar lighting. This might not sound exciting until you realize that many tribal members walk to work or to run errands, and they were walking on a completely dark stretch of roadway with no sidewalk, and no shoulder. Deb had a videographer on campus shoot the very moving video to increase transportation awareness and TransNow’s exposure.

Deb also came up with a working program to fund micro-grants, which could be used by PI’s to create websites and pay for patent lawyers to look at their projects, with the goal to commercialize them. One such project is called Greenroads, a sustainability rating system for roadway design and construction. Clearly, by doing such good work innovating in the program, Deb was being far more than just a Program Manager. The Director recognized her by naming her as an Associate Director.

Despite her tireless efforts to improve the program, we found out that our funding had been cut; the federal organization which managed our grant decided to re-structure the entire program. 59 centers just like ours would be closed and forced to re-compete next year for funding. In the meantime, however, all staff would be laid off.

Including Deb.

Despite fearing for her own livelihood, it was clear that for Deb, her staff still came first. She helped us all with resumes, she looked on the UW’s careers site for appropriate jobs and encouraged us to apply. She organized a bittersweet going away party. She felt for every one of us.

Even though most of the staff had been laid off, Deb stayed on to help work on a new grant proposal herself. She went to 50% time on paper, but was working longer hours than ever before, right up until the proposal was finished. She didn’t complain, however. Yinhai Wang had this to say:

“Deb is a great person to work with. In preparing the regional university transportation proposal, Deb and I worked closely together for several months. She impressed me a lot with her proactive working style, long term vision, collaborative spirit, capability of managing disputes, and quality of work. It was great fun working with her.”

Meanwhile, most of the staff got into new positions at the UW. I, for one, feel that I owe Deb a great debt of gratitude: despite the fact that I’d been separated from the University for months, and that Deb was working long hours on the re-compete proposal, Deb kept in touch with me. When I found a position I was really excited about, I told Deb and she responded by proactively contacting the hiring manager and giving him a recommendation I couldn’t be prouder of. She said: “I would hire him back in a second.”

She won’t have the opportunity, though, because they hired me; and luckily for the UW, the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology hired Deb a few weeks later.

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