Two weeks ago, I wrote a letter proposing to merge Eastern Washington University with Washington State University. I asked the presidents of EWU and WSU to work together to prepare a concept paper that could serve as a basis for consolidating the administration of EWU and WSU.
This has started a discussion which is desperately needed to solidify the role of public higher education in the Spokane area.
Ironically, this same discussion was held 12 years ago. In 1984, the Legislature authorized and funded the Study Committee on Coordination in Higher Education to investigate the potential for coordination and merger between EWU and WSU. After careful review, the committee’s major recommendations were to:
1. Create a joint center responsible for all off-campus programs offered by WSU and EWU in Spokane.
2. Merge the WSU Board of Regents and the EWU Board of Trustees, and assign the new Board the responsibility of achieving cooperation and an efficient use of taxpayer money.
3. Maintain separately identifiable institutions.
At the time, the naysayers and defenders of the status quo prevailed and the Legislature did not follow the recommendation of the study committee. Instead, it created the Joint Center for Higher Education (JCHE), in an effort to reduce academic turf wars and enhance public higher education. While this was well intended, it never quite met expectations.
One of the side effects of the JCHE is a burdensome process of acquiring approval to offer higher education programs in the community. This stopped the turf wars but did not enhance educational offerings in Spokane.
Twelve years later, we have made little progress in serving Spokane’s public higher education needs. This is especially true in contrast to the advances in higher education in the Tri-Cities and Vancouver areas - two areas that had joint centers and abandoned them for branch campuses.
Last week, EWU’s trustees ordered President Marshall Drummond to not participate with President Sam Smith of WSU. In essence, the board voted for the status quo. Unfortunately, this discussion cannot be complete without the involvement of EWU.
Contrary to the claims of the chairman of the trustees, EWU faces some serious challenges. Since the 1985 call for a merger, EWU has had five presidents and is now searching for another. The school has failed to meet its projected student enrollment by nearly 1,000 students and is in danger of losing the $7.4 million in state funds provided for those non-attending students.
The school has reduced more than 40 faculty positions and if its current recovery plan doesn’t work, additional reductions will be necessary. Finally, EWU has a reputation, deserved or not, among students, potential students and the Cheney community, of moving classes to Spokane at the expense of the main campus. Many would argue, and I agree, that this has hurt the school.
The search for solutions for both Spokane’s public higher education needs and EWU’s needs must include all options, including a single university system. The potential benefits of a single university system provide an opportunity to truly solidify and strengthen public higher education course offerings in the entire Spokane region.
A merger can stabilize the Cheney campus. For many years, the Cheney community and on-campus students have been concerned that more and more programs would be taken from the campus and moved to Spokane. Future erosion could be prevented with the strength of WSU and the recognition that the Cheney campus would be maintained as a residential university with a unique mission focused on providing and serving undergraduates.
The expanded Spokane campus would focus on the needs of the urban center by offering programs that augment or add to the existing course offerings without competing directly with the Cheney campus for students or programs. Growth in Spokane should be from new students and programs, not existing students moving from one campus to another.
A merger can protect student access to higher education in the region and should be sensitive to costs. Too many people are jumping to conclusions about tuition rates and funding. One of the goals of this discussion is to preserve access to higher education for people living in this area. Ensuring quality and affordable public higher education will be a top priority in this process.
A merger better serves the community. As the second largest city in Washington, Spokane needs a strong academic and research infrastructure to be competitive and to foster its economic development efforts. This can best be accomplished by a single entity responsible for delivery of services, as the Tri-Cities and Vancouver have demonstrated.
A merger serves the taxpayers. As many businesses in today’s world have demonstrated, mergers can enhance services and reduce their costs. Government in today’s world of budgeting cannot be immune from exploring all options for delivery of services.
I would not have asked for this discussion if I did not sincerely believe it would make the school, particularly the Cheney campus, better. From 1983 to 1993, I represented Cheney and EWU in the Legislature. I have always been considered a friend of the university, helping to secure needed funding for the renovation of the math and science building, and funding for the beautiful Kennedy Library. I have worked with each of the many presidents to make Eastern a better school and was recognized at graduation last year for my efforts over the years.
As a member of this community, as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and as a member of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, I care about the direction and the mission of higher education in our community and state. This effort is about strengthening and enhancing this region’s public higher education system.
I hope that 12 years from now we won’t look back again and wonder why we’ve still made no progress.