December 29, 1997 in Nation/World

Ewu Affair A Test Of State’s Resolve

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Eastern Washington University needs help, and Gov. Gary Locke has moved decisively to provide it.

Locke named three well-qualified trustees to Eastern’s board. Each appears to have an open mind about the university’s future as well as the analytical ability to help shape it.

Also, Locke ordered the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board to examine Eastern’s problems and report to the Legislature by Feb. 15 - soon enough for lawmakers to get rolling with some needed reforms, before the problems get worse.

The coordinating board, a long-range planning body, may not be accustomed to acting rapidly. The Legislature, a political body, may feel timid about problem-solving when faced with a political uproar from those who caused the problems, or those who fear change more than they fear the status quo.

But the status quo is intolerable. As the governor’s much-appreciated intervention should confirm, this is not a time for committees to flounder or politicians to hide. Both the coordinating board and the Legislature have an opportunity to earn their laurels.

An important state institution is in trouble. Its troubles are the result of a failure of leadership, by its top administrators and its former trustees. Others must exercise leadership - bold leadership - to get the university back on track.

Taxpayers, students and Eastern’s faculty all would be hurt by delay. Indecision will injure student recruiting for next year. Another bad enrollment year would be bad news indeed for a university that already may need to slash its faculty from 420 to 320 positions. For taxpayers, there’s a big investment to protect and a need to spend education dollars efficiently and well.

The old guard at Eastern is trying to confuse the issue, by suggesting the state study a massive, bureaucratic merger of all its universities. Baloney. The other universities aren’t broken. So don’t fix ‘em.

The first order of business is to define the issues. Here is what we know:

In the marketplace of would-be college students, Eastern isn’t selling well. Other state universities have grown in recent years, while for two years EWU has been roughly 1,000 students below budget. There are lots of theories about what’s wrong. But only better administration can make things right.

The Spokane metropolitan area will be stronger when it can offer residents and businesses a full range of public higher education services. Although facilities to house them are being improved, delivery of services is made awkward by institutional rivalries and an obscure “joint center” administrative body.

Statewide, we have learned what works in the delivery of higher education to a city without a main campus - and it’s not what the Spokane area has now. Branch campuses in Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Tacoma and Bothell all prove that when a single command structure is over both the home campus and the branch, resources flow aggressively to the branch in response to the familiar motives of institutional growth and customer service.

Merging Eastern into Washington State University would make available, immediately, a unified administrative structure with a track record for successful administration of a multi-campus system. This administration then could define and implement interlocking missions for both the Cheney and Spokane campuses.

Critics have raised important concerns, about retaining affordable tuition and a low student-faculty ratio at these two campuses. If these are good ideas - and they are - then a new administration simply could make them a priority in the new design.

Thanks to Gov. Locke, as well as other visionaries including Spokane Sen. Jim West, the groundwork is laid to get started on that new design.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board


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