Photo courtesy Sy Bean/University of Puget Sound

Isiaah Crawford exudes all the charm and warmth one might expect from a Midwesterner, one who, despite his many life successes, still tells stories — including those of his childhood in St. Louis — with humility, authenticity, and occasional breaks of laughter at himself with his wide smile. 

A product of the St. Louis public school system, Crawford was raised by his mother, his aunt, and his grandmother, all who recognized the way that education can impact a life. 

“Since I can remember, I was always getting the directive, ‘You’re going to college. You’re going to college,’” Crawford said. “The inherent value of it was instilled by my family.”

Following the matriarchal mandate, Crawford pursued his undergraduate degree at St. Louis University, earning a bachelor’s in psychology. Though his family’s directives were achieved, Crawford didn’t stop there, instead going on to attain both his master’s and Ph.D. in clinical community psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. 

Almost immediately after defending his dissertation, Crawford was offered — and accepted — an assistant professorship in the psychology department at nearby Loyola University. He also began his own practice as a clinical psychologist. After becoming a tenured professor, graduate program director, department chair, and eventually interim dean at Loyola, Crawford moved to the Pacific Northwest to become the provost and chief academic officer at Seattle University. He served in that role for eight years until, after an extensive, nationwide search, he was selected to become the president of the University of Puget Sound in 2016.

That July, Crawford was sworn in as the Tacoma private university’s 14th president, and its first African American and openly gay one. He said that being offered the position was one of the most spectacular days in his life and admitted to doing a sitcom-worthy fist pump in the busy streets of Seattle when he got the phone call. 

“It was one of those moments of just unabashed joy,” Crawford recalled, again flashing that signature grin.

Since then, Crawford has been instrumental in developing a strategic plan that will guide the university for the next decade, advocating for a place for liberal arts education in today’s collegiate marketplace, and ensuring that university staff and faculty reflect the diversity of the community in which they serve.

Under Crawford’s watch lies a powerful machine, one that educates approximately 2,600 students each year from 46 states and eight countries and is estimated to have an economic impact of more than $100 million on the area. We sat down with Crawford to talk about the current higher education landscape, career paths for today’s students, and future plans for UPS.

As a first-generation student who not only went on to earn a doctoral degree but become the president of a prestigious university, can you talk about the value of higher education?

My story is demonstrative of what I believe is the transformative power of education, and particularly liberal arts education. I am here before you because of the education that I’ve been able to receive. And the type of education that I received is the type of education we try to offer here at the University of Puget Sound — one that looks to not only facilitate your development academically or intellectually, but also your social development, your sense of self, your sense of agency. That really was impactful to me during my undergraduate years, and it’s just carried forward. I am an ambassador, I hope, around the impact that education can have — it can move you on a path you never thought was possible: Your eyes open; you can channel resources that you didn’t know you had; and you can take good, healthy risks.

You spearheaded UPS’s most recent 10-year strategic plan. Can you share some of its key components and how you arrived at those topics?

Over these three years, we’ve worked to develop our strategic plan and vision for the university going forward, and it’s called “Leadership for a Changing World.” What we’re really looking to do is double down on the importance of liberal arts education, but with a specific eye on making sure our graduates are prepared for life in the 21st century — that they have the knowledge, skills, the set of values that we think are going to be important to meet the challenges and the changes that are coming in our world. We worked collaboratively on this, and throughout the process we probably had the input of a good couple of hundred people. We distilled down from that those elements of which we had general consensus. I think, with that, people were able to come away with an understanding of what was included and can find a bit of themselves in the plan.

Career fields in industries like tech, medicine, natural and physical sciences, and others are becoming increasingly specialized. How does a liberal arts education provide a foundation for students, even those pursuing a specialized field?

You talk to economists and some visionaries, and they suggest that young people now will likely have five or six different careers. Not jobs, careers. So, people are going to have to have the ability to reinvent themselves, to adapt, to be flexible, to be creative, dare I say even entrepreneurial. And we believe a liberal arts education can really help prepare people to be able to have that habit of mind that allows for that adaptability, that cognitive flexibility. Perhaps they no longer need coders because artificial intelligence will be doing some of that. Then what do you get to do? How do you think about what’s next? How do you adapt? And that’s what we believe undergirds our educational experience as a liberal arts education. So, our students come out with technical skills, but what we’re also looking to achieve is imbuing within them a sense that they can adapt and be flexible as circumstances warrant.

The higher education market is in a unique position. There is an increasing demand for highly educated workers, but affordability, market saturation, and larger societal issues can pose as challenges for incoming students and workers. How has UPS positioned itself in this climate? 

We recognize that we need to continue to highlight what it is about the University of Puget Sound that is distinctive and distinguishes us in the crowded marketplace that is higher education. So, we’re focused on that and how we can tell our story in the most effective way to prospective students, their parents, civic leaders, and community leaders. It reflects, particularly for us, a focus on issues of affordability. We want to be an institution that is affordable and accessible for students who want the type of education that we offer. We’re committed to continuing to try to increase our endowment for scholarships, as well as create an environment that will promote student success for students from various diverse environments and backgrounds. It’s a very focused, clear commitment on our part. And we feel like it’s incumbent upon us to do that. Our nation is changing and evolving, and our institution has to change and evolve in those appropriate ways as well. 

Empirical evidence suggests that student outcomes improve with diverse teachers and leaders. As UPS’s first African American and openly gay president, both historically underrepresented demographics in leadership, how do you feel this has impacted your students?

Part of our commitment is to make sure that our faculty and our staff are also representative of the world in which we live. We’ve been able to make noted strides in the diversification of our faculty such that, in the last number of years, over half of our faculty that we have brought onto our campus have been faculty of color, and we continue to make strides in regard to staff. In my own education outside of high school, I only had a handful of faculty persons who were people of color, and they all played an important role for me. Just the fact that they were there meant you could make it; there is a path. It makes a world of difference. And there is an inordinate amount of research now that really does demonstrate that — even if you’re not a first-generation or a minoritized student, any student — the most important element of success is having a connection with someone who believes in you. And so, we’re really focusing on how we can make sure our students have a sense of a real mentor here. Be it a faculty person, a staff, an alumnus, or members of our community.