Arrow-right Camera


Talons Out Over Eastern-WSU Merger Higher Ed Board To Visit Spokane, Cheney To Study How To Deliver College Programs

Mon., Jan. 12, 1998

(From For the Record, January 13, 1998): Story wrong: Washington State University and Eastern Washington University first combined their Spokane libraries in 1993, but together relocated it during the schools’ winter break. A Page 1 story Monday incorrectly reported when the schools combined their libraries.

Eastern Washington University and Washington State University merged their Spokane libraries over the holidays.

But that may be the only sign of agreement that a state board will encounter this week during a fact-finding visit to Spokane and Cheney.

Members of the Higher Education Coordinating Board begin meeting Tuesday with administrators, faculty, students and the public to decide if the state should change how university programs are delivered in the Inland Northwest.

Sen. Jim West, a Spokane Republican, sparked the debate last month when he suggested that it was time to merge WSU and Eastern.

WSU praised the idea; Eastern loathed it.

Gov. Gary Locke asked the HEC Board to mediate by studying the matter and drafting recommendations due Feb. 15. That would give the Legislature time to take action before the end of its current session.

The debate pits WSU, a research institution that has grown to 20,000 students by building branch campuses statewide, against Eastern, a quiet four-year school that’s been content for nearly two decades to serve about 7,000 students, mostly from Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

The board will hear two versions about the condition of higher education in the county.

WSU will claim that Spokane can’t lure big factories because the city lacks a research university. It will say that some of the 3,000 people from Spokane County who take classes in Pullman do so because Eastern and other schools have blocked WSU from offering similar programs in Spokane.

Eastern will claim that Spokane is awash with college offerings and Eastern provides a low-cost alternative to WSU in a region where wages are below the state average. Eastern also will say it has begun to recover from its recent drop in enrollment and is mending internal strife that damaged the effectiveness of staff, faculty and administrators.

“Any rationale for merging Eastern with anybody is false and we would refute that nonsense,” says Eastern president Marshall Drummond.

“There’s a growing dichotomy between our public image and what’s really going on at Eastern,” he says. “If we had hundreds of lawsuits, audits and fraud…it certainly would be time for a takeover. But we don’t.”

The arguments by the schools have merit, and shortcomings.

WSU’s claim that it can’t expand in Spokane doesn’t reconcile with records at the Joint Center for Higher Education, a citizen’s board that approves new academic programs. The center shows no denial of WSU programs since 1991.

WSU hints that it would resolve criticism from Microsoft’s Bill Gates and other industry leaders who have said that Spokane lacks graduate programs in engineering and other fields. But Gates is wrong: Gonzaga University operates an engineering school in Spokane and Eastern says it has more research grants in Spokane than WSU.

However, Eastern’s assertion that its recovery plan is working is premature. The plan also comes at a tremendous cost to taxpayers and the university.

The school is using $1.6 million in tax money that it normally wouldn’t have to market the school, recruit students and introduce courses that are in high demand. An unexpected 300 new students enrolled last fall, but that occurred before the HEC Board released the recruitment money to Eastern.

School officials say the student prospects for fall 1998 are at record levels, but publicity about a possible merger may cripple recruitment efforts.

Perhaps more serious is Eastern’s agreement to cut costs by reducing its full-time faculty positions from 420 to 320 over three years. Should student enrollment fail to rebound soon, the school could be forced to take the unprecedented step of an emergency layoff of tenured faculty.

While making personnel cuts, Eastern’s board of trustees reconfirmed its support for Division I-AA football and other athletic teams. It agreed to pay more than $400,000 in “golden parachute” severance contracts to Drummond and two other executives who announced their resignations last year. That’s enough money to employ six full-time teachers.

The clash between schools comes at a time of revolutionary change in higher education.

Online providers such as the Western Governors University are preparing to pipe Internet degrees into Spokane and elsewhere. Theoretically, students in the future will be able to earn a college degree in their pajamas, without ever leaving their apartments.

The University of Washington and other schools not regulated by the Joint Center are soliciting students for graduate courses in Spokane. And the Community Colleges of Spokane are capitalizing on training programs for workers who want to change careers, or pay less money for the first two years of a liberal arts degree.

Until now, the Joint Center has acted as the United Nations of higher education in Spokane, keeping the peace by protecting the turf of five public and private colleges and universities. The center gives each school the right to veto any attempt by colleagues to introduce competing degrees.

WSU has circulated a list of 32 degrees and certificates it says it would have offered in Spokane if not for opposition from the Joint Center and its members. These include doctorate degrees in nutrition, clinical psychology and education; and master’s degrees in computer science, accounting, teaching and food service management.

“Spokane has some wonderful opportunities if we’re smart enough to take advantage of it,” says Samuel Smith, president of WSU.

Robert Herold, executive vice provost who runs Eastern’s Spokane Center, says that WSU hasn’t pushed the programs because it knows they would fail for lack of interest.

Of all branch campus cities, he said, Spokane has the highest percentage of public university programs-to-students in the state.

The state lists 28 degree programs in Spokane for 1,603 students. That’s more programs than WSU and University of Washington offer at their branch campuses in the Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Bothell and Tacoma.

“Spokane is the best served city in the state, except there’s no doctorate program because there’s no demand,” Herold says.

The HEC Board will get another view from some of the 4,000 Eastern students who commute from Spokane or Cheney and business leaders in both cities.

But perhaps the most compelling conversations will be with faculty at WSU and Eastern who have been caught in the struggle.

“Just as we’re turning things around, we’re hit with the merger proposal,” says Dale Lindekugel, vice president of Eastern’s Faculty Senate. “We find that some of our best and youngest faculty are actively in the job market.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TESTIMONY The Higher Education Coordinating Board will take public testimony from 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Phase 1 Building of the Riverpoint Higher Education Park, 668 N. Riverpoint Blvd., in Spokane.

This sidebar appeared with the story: TESTIMONY The Higher Education Coordinating Board will take public testimony from 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Phase 1 Building of the Riverpoint Higher Education Park, 668 N. Riverpoint Blvd., in Spokane.


Click here to comment on this story »