As chairman of the Eastern Washington University Board of Trustees, I believe it is important for the public to understand why we voted unanimously to ask Sen. Jim West to withdraw his recent letter proposing the merger of Eastern and Washington State universities - and why we declined to allow Eastern’s president to work with WSU in such a planning process.
Simply put, any such plan is premature at this time.
Two perceptions need to be addressed. One is the notion that Eastern is in trouble and, because of declining enrollments, somehow needs to be “rescued.” Second is that a merger is being put forth as a possible way to solve problems with the delivery of higher education in urban Spokane. Let me speak to both of these matters.
Eastern is not experiencing any financial crisis. The university, with its $95 million annual budget, is robust and continues to offer programs of value to residents throughout this region.
It’s true that Eastern has had enrollment declines in recent years. This is partly due to flat population growth in the eastern portion of the state. Even WSU is struggling to maintain enrollment expectations at its Pullman campus.
Also, when faced with budget reductions a few years ago, Eastern tried to spare its academic programs and took most of its cuts in support services, including recruitment personnel. That was probably a mistake. In an increasingly competitive higher education market, Eastern needed to be out meeting potential students much more aggressively, letting them know what Eastern has to offer.
This is the first year that our recruitment-enrollment infrastructure has been re-established, and we have been getting positive responses now that we are before the public with our message.
We project that enrollment for the current academic year will be virtually even with last year’s. Last spring, we had expected a decline of some 300 students.
For next year, we already have a prospect pool of 8,251 students - students who responded to direct mail or said they want to know more about us. Not every prospect will come to Eastern, but this number exceeds by 100 the number of prospects we had for all of the 1997-98 year - and there are still nine months of recruiting to go!
The Legislature has given us marching orders for turning enrollment around. So, let us do that.
The timing of a merger discussion couldn’t have been worse for our recruitment activities. Now is when high school students are making decisions about college for next year. We have no way of knowing how this merger conversation will confuse issues for them.
This merger matter came out of the blue and feels like recruitment sabotage to us. Even if Eastern were in need of rescuing, you don’t rescue something by destroying it.
(Please note, Sen. West’s signed letter was received at Eastern on Dec. 4, two or three days after it was in the hands of news media in the state.)
The proposal’s other element speaks of how to better serve Spokane’s higher education needs. I think there would be little argument that there is considerable room for improvement.
EWU and WSU are present in Spokane, as are the Joint Center for Higher Education, the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute, Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls Community College and a community college district office. That’s quite a number of public entities in the higher education business in one place.
When our board voted on Dec. 5 not to participate in preparation of an EWU-WSU merger plan, we discussed frankly - and in public - that we would welcome and be eager to participate in a review of higher education needs and current levels of service in Spokane.
This is not a stalling tactic; it’s just good research methodology. Putting forth a solution before a problem is defined or clarified is the most bankrupt of notions. If we go ahead with a merger before really understanding the problem and the merger doesn’t fix things, then what? Wrap the community colleges into EWU-WSU?
As a board of trustees, we would be derelict in our duties if we proceeded in a manner we believe to be against the best interests of Eastern’s students, this region and the state.
Indeed, because a merger would have repercussions throughout Washington, our board has suggested that rather than just look at “the Spokane question,” there should be a statewide examination of how higher education services are delivered. This should be directed by the Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB), the body appointed by and responsible to the Legislature for higher education in the state. Maybe it’s time for an overhaul of all of higher education in Washington.
There has been talk of adopting a statewide system such as California has. And talk of allowing regional institutions to offer Ph.D. programs. And discussion as to whether a polytechnic university is what Spokane really needs. Do any of these discussion topics speak to the best interest of the citizens of Washington as higher education moves into a new century?
The reality is, we don’t know. Yet. The issues are bigger than just Eastern and WSU. They should not be handled by putting the cart before the horse.
If a careful examination of higher education needs and services in the state - or even just in the region - by all stakeholders involved shows that there may be merit to considering an EWU-WSU merger, I can speak on behalf of the EWU Board of Trustees and state that we will be very willing to participate in that decision. We would do so with vigor and good faith.