Washington State University may gobble up Eastern Washington University under a proposal released Monday by a Spokane lawmaker.
The merger would result in two branch campuses - WSU Cheney and WSU Spokane.
It would retain, however, four-year residential programs and athletic teams, including football, in Cheney.
Sen. Jim West, Republican chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, asked the presidents of both schools to prepare a detailed merger plan that the Legislature could consider in January.
If approved, a merger would take up to four years to complete, the presidents said.
“This is the window of opportunity,” said West, who quietly has been meeting with community leaders and policy analysts to gauge support for the plan. “Eastern needs something, and this is one of many different ideas on how to do it.”
The plan, West said, would stabilize EWU’s enrollment, which had fallen 1,000 students in four years.
It also would boost the quality of higher education in Spokane by letting WSU, a land-grant research institution, take control of the downtown Joint Center for Higher Education. That would free WSU to offer certain degrees without prior state approval and would eliminate public confusion over the purpose of the joint center, West said.
But the plan could eliminate EWU as the lowest-cost provider of higher education among the state’s four-year schools and reduce employment of administrators and staff in Cheney. That has advocates for the poor, such as state Sen. Lisa Brown, concerned.
“Choices are important,” said Brown, a Spokane Democrat and associate professor of economics at EWU. “A choice of programs, a choice of faculty, a choice of schools and tuition - EWU students should have those kinds of choices.”
EWU’s 6,900 full-time students currently pay about $2,500 per year for tuition. WSU’s 19,200 students pay $3,350.
Brown also questioned how the schools would resolve their differences over semester vs. quarter systems, faculty pay scales and governing boards. She said the proposal comes at a bad time for EWU, which is trying to hire a replacement for President Marshall Drummond, who will step down in 1998.
Gov. Gary Locke said in a statement that “I’m open to options outlined (by West) … and would be willing to consider other possibilities as well.
Although I have never ruled out the possibility of consolidation, there are a number of unanswered questions that still need to be carefully considered.”
WSU president Sam Smith said details can be worked out if the Spokane and Cheney communities support the merger.
“This is a decision for Spokane and Cheney,” he said. “The two institutions will lay out a concept and planning process. If it’s viewed as positive by the communities, then we’ll accomplish it.”
A merger of the two universities was rejected a dozen years ago when Eastern declared that its students were better served by an independent regional university. Students wore T-shirts with a flying eagle, Eastern’s mascot, holding a WSU cougar in its talons.
But the debate resulted in the creation of the Joint Center to enhance state-supported higher education in Spokane and boost the region’s economy.
James Kirschbaum, chairman of Eastern’s board of trustees, said the board will meet Friday to discuss the proposal.
“It’s my tax money, too,” he said. “If education would be better delivered under a merger, then I would consider it.”
Drummond said that given the financial and academic clout of WSU, a merger is worth considering.
“I believe Eastern will solve its enrollment problems without a merger, and I don’t think we’re going broke and need someone to come buy our lunch for us,” he said.
“But there’s a question of quality service and getting the most bang for the buck. WSU is a powerful, well-known institution and Spokane could use more of that.”
The two schools already share library systems and some downtown Spokane academic programs, West said. Sports teams and other unique programs could be retained in a plan modeled after the University of California system, he said.
But on the Cheney campus, where a winning Eagle football team is soaring through the playoffs, school pride stops many students from embracing the Rose Bowl-bound Cougars.
“I’m pretty sure that the student population would say they like Eastern the way it is,” said LaShund Lambert, president of Associated Students of EWU. “The whole thing makes me nervous.”
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