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Inept Bill Would Scuttle Emerging High-Tech Symbiosis

More than Eastern Washington University is endangered by legislation that would displace EWU in Spokane in favor of Washington State University.

Senate Bill 6717 also poses a serious threat to high technology development in the Spokane metropolitan area. In particular, by establishing legal mechanisms to freeze out some Spokane higher education programs, the bill will have a chilling effect on the new and already successful Terabyte Triangle plan to bring increased economic activity to downtown Spokane.

Officially launched last September, the Terabyte Triangle plans to create a miniature Silicon Valley in a large triangular region around the downtown core. In brief, this concept is based on clusters of high-tech, mutually beneficial businesses, in buildings wired to extremely high-speed Internet connections. There are six such clusters now.

But it takes more than a few miles of optical fiber and a few floors of office space to create a thriving downtown high-tech community. In San Jose, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, interaction with higher education is a vital part of the area’s success story.

This interaction is more complex than just proximity to a research university. In fact, the nearest public research university, the University of California at Berkeley, is about as far from San Jose in drive-time as WSU-Pullman is from downtown Spokane.

But in downtown San Jose there is San Jose State University, a smaller, service-oriented university, similar in mission to Eastern Washington University. This campus has provided extensive and vital support to the San Jose technology community for many years, including help to the Software Incubator in downtown San Jose.

There is a profound difference in the operations of a major research university and a teaching-service university, which translates into substantially different ways of interacting with the technology community.

Research university faculty careers are built around significant published research in major journals, the operation of large and expensive research labs and the administration of many co-workers and graduate students involved in research endeavors. These faculty do not have the time to provide quick solutions to day-to-day industry problems, whip up courses to meet immediate needs and make site visits to troubleshoot projects.

Because of all this, research universities generally provide impetus to the technology community through strategic developments of new products and the provision of very special research expertise in highly focused, advanced areas of new development.

Service university faculty efforts are more devoted to teaching, planning new classes, providing good experience for student education and hand-to-hand interaction with industry through student internships, project development partnerships, and extensive hands-on help with immediate problems, usually involving student participation. The pressure to publish in research journals is not nearly as high or as critical to a faculty career.

In the EWU computer science department, for example, software product development, invention disclosures and publications in applied journals and conference proceedings are counted as scholarship for tenure and promotion, as well as research journal publication. As in San Jose, the EWU Spokane-based programs can produce quick, hands-on help in areas such as product marketing, software testing and specialized employee education.

Two examples will illustrate this type of interaction.

Itron called the EWU office at SIRTI, seeking immediate help with a problem in encoding characters for a new hand-held device for the Korean power industry. An EWU professor, Dr Ray Hamel, assisted by Korean students at EWU, solved the problem in a few weeks.

EWU business dean John Schleede and I made several site visits to the Spokane headquarters of the Principal Financial Group, to analyze their needs in connection with opening a software development operation there. We assured the company that company-required programming classes would be set up quickly for their future employees.

The Principal Financial Group then decided to open the systems development office, leading to several new software development jobs in the downtown area.

In addition to services like these, the EWU computer science department has assisted companies such as XN Technologies, Quantum Northwest, and Pathology Associates in developing systems and software for future products or internal company use.

Why can’t these services be provided from the Cheney campus? There are two fundamental reasons.

The first is logistics. To host custom classes for company employees, a convenient hub location with short travel time is essential to allow employees to come directly after work.

Shared resources is the second reason. EWU and WSU faculty and students at SIRTI have access to more classes, better labs, more equipment, more interaction with industry and better project and funding opportunities than is possible without sharing across universities and organizations.

In summary, the spirit and letter of the West-Prince bill denies to Spokane the successful and proven model which has created one of the world’s hottest technology cities, San Jose. Freezing EWU programs out of Spokane denies this city the choice of higher education flavors for complete and effective support of high technology.

Because the pending legislation is not based on sufficient research, it fails to acknowledge the complementary roles of the research university and the teaching-service university. It negates over 20 years of effort in establishing a highly successful network of facilities, human contacts and well-developed services in the Spokane area.

I see the bill as a giant step backward into 19th century territorialism and away from the fluid, collaborative, innovative and optimized education system needed for 21st century success.


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