Staff Spotlight

Our June staff spotlight is on Karen Svendsen, director of academic human resources, who will be retiring on August 31, 2021, after 27 years at the University of Washington.

Karen SvendsenKaren joined the University of Washington in 1994 as the assistant to the dean emeritus in the School of Medicine Dean’s Office. In 2003, she was recruited to the Department of Medicine to lead academic HR.


During Karen’s tenure, the number of faculty in the department has more than doubled, and she has been responsible for 80 to 100 active recruitments at any given time, over 300 annual appointments and 80 annual faculty promotions. Our faculty promotion rate is 30% of the total promotions in the School of Medicine and 18% of promotions institution-wide.

Karen has been an invaluable resource over the years. She is highly regarded by her colleagues for her extensive knowledge of department, school and University policies and procedures and her innovative approaches to solving difficult problems.

“Karen has been an outstanding colleague, mentor, advocate and friend to so many of us in the department over the years," said Betsy Buswell, Vice Chair for Finance and Administration. “Her professionalism, dedication and expertise are well balanced by her positive outlook and sense of humor.”

She has been the rock of the department through all the recent transitions (including the transition of the leadership in our department to a new vice chair and chair for the first time in 18 and 20 years, respectively) and while planning this next chapter of hers, has been very careful to pick the time that she felt would be right for the department as well as her. 

Among her many accomplishments, she has played important roles in promoting the departmental and university goals for facilitating diversity in our faculty, recruiting and onboarding countless key leadership positions, the transition of the new payroll platform (Workday) from the legacy system, the transition of a division to a department, and the NW Hospital integration.

“Karen is very knowledgeable about the sometimes-arcane rules and policies affecting faculty and is always willing to give excellent advice and to advocate for faculty members,” said former Department Chair William Bremner. “Over the years, she suggested and helped implement many improvements and recruited outstanding staff to work with her. She is unfailingly pleasant, with a ready smile and a hearty laugh. She will be greatly missed.”

Mentorship and leadership

Her advice is sought by individuals at all levels in the department, school and University, and she has a kind, calm demeanor that fosters a respectful, diverse and collaborative work environment for everyone she encounters. 

A consummate teacher and mentor, Karen has cultivated her team and supported their growth and promotion. Several of her staff have moved on to key leadership positions in the department. Under her tutelage, they have remained loyal to the department while pursuing their ambitions. She has been a driving force in retaining excellent people.

“Karen has been incredibly supportive over the years,” said Amy Fields, Director of Communications. “She is an outstanding mentor who values our contributions and generously offers praise and feedback. She is accessible, gracious, patient and knowledgeable. She goes out of her way to answer questions and provide guidance. She created a fun and relaxed atmosphere in which to work in spite of pressing deadlines and demands.”


Karen has been nominated for the UW Distinguished Staff Award, the University’s highest honor, and the John R. Pettit Leadership Award.

Nationally, she presented three posters (“The road to successful promotion – junior faculty development plan;” “Instituting a departmental wellness plan;” and “Transporting recruitment and promotion/tenure processes into the 21st Century”) at Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine conferences. These were well received and garnered national interest and attention.

She also co-authored: “The Road to Successful Promotion–A Development Plan for Junior Faculty” in Academic Internal Medicine Insight.

Personal life

Born and raised in Seattle, Karen studied communications at Washington State University before moving to Fairbanks, Alaska in 1978. She met her husband, Claus, an exchange student from Copenhagen, Denmark, when she was working at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. They just celebrated their 30-year wedding anniversary in Monterey, California. 

In her free time, she loves to travel and spend time with her daughters and new grandson. 

Karen Svendsen and family


Karen has been a model of integrity and diligence in her many years of service at the University of Washington, and she will be greatly missed.

“We are thankful for all of the important contributions Karen has made to the department, school and University, and wish her all the best in her retirement, as she enjoys a killer view in her new place, travel, spending time with her kids and grandchild, and works on perfecting her golf game!” said Department Chair Dr. Barbara Jung. 

Port Ludlow
View from Karen’s new house in Port Ludlow, Washington

"The Department of Medicine has been a great ride," said Karen. "I have been constantly challenged and inspired by my colleagues, and also learned so much about myself in the process. I have made great and lasting friendships. I’m excited about the direction of the department with our new leadership and can’t wait for my new direction as well!"