David B. Thorud Leadership Award
Mike Townsend

Mike Townsend

Associate Professor, School of Law;
Secretary of the Faculty, Faculty Senate

Nominated by Robin Angotti, Professor,
Engineering & Mathematics/Bothell

Awarded 2023

It is an honor to nominate Mike Townsend for the Thorud Leadership Award. In his work as Secretary of the Faculty, Mike has exhibited a leadership style that is subtle, taking no credit unto himself, but which has had a profound effect on the University of Washington (UW). He is a strategic leader who makes decisions based on compassion and fairness, always thinking about the well-being of others, and celebrating diverse perspectives with a belief that diversity of thought and voice make the university stronger. Mike’s leadership is “people focused” and centered around an idea that the university thrives when the people at its core are respected for their expertise and have opportunities to grow and advance their careers. In meetings with everyone from administrative heads to rank-and-file faculty members, Mike demonstrates a capacity to listen and genuinely hear what others have to say, to compromise when appropriate and show others how to do so, and to act with an obvious caring that inspires trust. I feel he exemplifies the criteria for this award.

Mike’s faculty appointment is in the Law School, but the last six years he has served the university as Secretary of the Faculty. His quiet, steadfast leadership in faculty governance is much more than the description for that role. I want to highlight three areas in which Mike’s leadership has had major impact: mentorship, serving individual faculty, and championing faculty grievance and discipline policy legislation.

Mentorship of Faculty Governance Leadership

UW has a robust system of faculty governance in which faculty from across three campuses serve in shared leadership. The highest elected position in this engine is the Faculty Senate Chair. In our governance structure, the chair serves a one-year term which is preceded and followed by one-year terms in lesser roles as vice-chair and chair of the Senate Committee on Planning and Budget. Thus, the roles that senate chairs revolve through during their three-year term are constantly changing. As someone who served in this role, I can attest that chairs are just feeling competent in one role when they are thrust into the next. Thus, continuity and coherence of senate leadership is heavily dependent on the guidance of the Secretary of the Faculty who serves a five-year term.

Faculty elected to these positions have little experience to prepare them for this important and powerful job. Each senate chair begins their term with an agenda they want to accomplish in their year as chair. Mike Townsend is integral in helping chairs develop and achieve these university-wide goals. For example, in my year as chair, I wanted to promote broader awareness of the tri-campus. I wanted the university community to understand the strengths of each campus and how, together, we could meet our mission and better serve the people of the state of Washington. I had no idea how to accomplish that goal until I started working with Mike Townsend.

In my year as vice-chair, Mike took the time to meet with me on a regular basis to talk through issues, assess strategies, and to teach me how to navigate university policy. He supported me when meeting with administration from all three campuses. He was a lighthouse, my beacon that helped me focus on my objective and navigate the treacherous seas of university politics and relationships. During that time, he also looked after my well-being. I was chair during the year of covid when we were entirely online. Since I live by myself, isolated in a tiny apartment, Mike scheduled regular meetings with the senate leadership team, not to talk about work, but to catch up, talk about life, and grow as a team. Mike understood my isolation and knew I would do my best job as chair if had support in life as well as work.

Mike’s leadership and mentorship of me was not an isolated case. While he has been secretary, he has mentored the senate chairs before me and after me. He listened to their goals, hopes, and aspirations and worked to help them achieve their large-scale goals while respecting their well-being in a challenging job. Other former senate chairs state:

“I’ve served in various senate roles with five different secretaries, and nobody has been more effective in that role than Mike Townsend. He accomplishes the astonishing feat of being a strong leader who’s nearly invisible to the outside world. He’s always there to support the priorities and goals of a succession of senate chairs, while providing gentle and subtle guidance when necessary to ensure that the chairs don’t go too far out into dangerous waters.” ~Jack Lee

“Mike’s leadership is a subtle one – more like someone sailing a boat than flying a plane. Reading the wind and the currents, hand on the rudder, eyes on the horizon. He’s the person you always want advice from if you are planning a big move – partly because he knows the players and the game so well, but mainly because his ‘strategic’ suggestions are always centered on compassion and justice, and they always take in the wider ocean of issues.” ~Chris Laws

Mike’s sustained leadership extends beyond mentoring of senate chairs to the entire leadership team. He also works with senate council chairs and elected faculty councils of each school/college to meet their agendas and develop code-compliant legislation and bylaws. Mike has also been working with the leadership of the General Faculty Organization at Bothell and the Faculty Assembly at Tacoma in order to support their efforts to implement tri-campus shared governance. The diverse experiences and perspectives of the different constituencies that Mike works with across the tri-campus is breathtaking. With each, Mike works to help them meet their goals within the workings of the faculty governance system.

Advocacy for Individuals

One of the responsibilities of the Secretary of the Faculty that Mike has continued to develop is advising individual faculty and administrators on rights and responsibilities as outlined in the faculty code. With Mike’s deep code knowledge, he has become sought after from all levels of the university for his interpretation of the code. Because of his focus on the well-being of people, Mike goes beyond just a legalistic, technical interpretation to the root causes of whatever difficulty faculty are facing. Mike understands that when a person comes to the Secretary of the Faculty with a concern, there is often an underlying situation invoking strong stress and emotions for the involved faculty member. Mike works to understand that situation and advise all parties with a focus on compassion and fairness in order to produce a productive work environment for all involved to thrive. Mike’s work in this area, melding his understanding of the code with his compassion for the human beings involved has impacted the lives and working conditions of faculty across the UW. Even with all the other leadership work he has done, I believe this is his legacy.


My sentiment on Mike’s legacy is not shared by all. Some in faculty governance believe that Mike’s work on a new faculty discipline and grievance policy will be his lasting mark on this university. “Mike’s main legacy will be the monumental restructuring of our faculty discipline and grievance procedures. He’s the one person who has been at the center of the project from the beginning, mostly invisible to the outside world as is his wont, but absolutely essential to its chances of success.” ~Professor UW Seattle.

This legislation reshapes entire chapters of faculty code and brings the grievance process into the 21st century. Mike championed this legislation through years of difficult conversations across the university. He displayed flexibility and nimbleness in drafting and editing to meet the needs of both administration and faculty while holding to values of compassion and justice as his north star. This legislation stands to change the way disputes are handled and brings the grievance process out of the shadows. Mike’s work will improve the working conditions for thousands of individuals across three campuses.


It is my hope that the committee sees the steadfast leadership of a man who would never seek accolades or acknowledgement for the tremendous impact his work has had across the university. Mike’s work demonstrates value for diverse perspectives, respect for individual goals, and concern for the well-being of the UW community. He has partnered with colleagues from across the tri-campus and has worked to advance access and opportunity for all. His quiet leadership style, agile and steadfast, hands steady on the rudder of the ship, is the hallmark of a leader who can pilot through rough waters ahead with their sights on the destination.

In performance reviews at one of my previous employers, we sometimes used what we call a “lifeboat” exercise. We would look across our team and decide, if we only had a few people to keep on our team, who would we keep and in what order to insure the success of our organization? In such a situation, Mike Townsend would definitely be first in my boat.


View All Past Recipients