“Relentlessly innovative,” at the very least, is something we should try to be, says the gregarious president of Western Washington University Bruce Shepard. Innovative is what Washington’s public universities must be and what Western strives for. Try something new, fail if you must, then try something new again. Be relentless in search of something better.
“I see the exact opposite down in Olympia,” lamented Shepard, during a stop in Wenatchee Wednesday. It was coincidentally the same day the state Senate majority coalition released its proposed 2013-15 operating budget. It proposed a 11.5 percent funding hike for higher education in return for a 3-percent tuition cut.
On the surface this certainly sounds beneficial. It could, if it comes to pass, mark the end of a long, precipitous slide in state support for higher education — with the state paying 70 percent of the cost at four-year universities not long ago, to 30 percent today, accompanied by necessary tuition increases routinely in the double digits, exceeding 80 percent in just the last four years at some institutions.
Shepard of course had not inspected the details of the Senate budget, but was far from ecstatic. A 3-percent tuition cut sounds great, if larger appropriations more than make up for the loss in revenue. If they don’t, and that’s the way it appears, then it’s just another budget cut. And it’s not the most equitable approach, he said. The truth is, 80 percent of students at Western and similar institutions come from the well-off top two-fifths of Washington’s family income scale. For every $5 cut in tuition, $4 goes to upper-income families.
The Senate budget provides for $50 million in “performance funding” for schools that meet goals for student retention and production of graduates. “That isn’t money I can budget,” said Shepard, adding, “It’s just a superficial patina to make it look like you are doing something.”
Don’t think Shepard is mired in budgetary gloom. He’s part academic, part motivational speaker. “Western is going to flourish. I don’t worry about the budget,” he said. Cuts in state support have hurt, but at the same time freed the university to take on more responsibility and gain independence, to “take our strengths and apply them to the needs of the state.”
Shepard said his great regrets come from opportunities lost. Washington is a state with a disproportionate number of highly educated, extraordinarily bright and accomplished innovators. But most of them did not rise from this state’s institutions of learning. Too few of this state’s students move on to college. Too few move to the upper tier. Our businesses import intelligence from other states, and “We educate our sons and daughters to work for them. That’s our strategy as a state,” Shepard said.
Our public institutions of learning need to lead society to a higher level. They were at the forefront of two great societal revolutions, said Shepard — in the second half of the 19th century when the Morrill Act established land-grant universities and made higher education accessible to the common man, and in the second half of the 20th century with the passage of the GI Bill, which helped create the best educated generation in history.
Now, for the first time we will produce a generation less educated than the last. We should not tolerate that and expect to prosper. Sometime soon we need to stop papering over our failures. Somewhere, we need to find the will to change.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.