Compromise Plan Drops WSU-Ewu Merger WSU Would Take Over In Spokane, While Ewu Would Continue In Cheney
Washington State University would take over higher education in Spokane and Eastern Washington University would stay in Cheney under a bill filed late Tuesday by two Eastern Washington lawmakers.
The plan also would eliminate a regional oversight board.
After weeks of negotiating, state Sens. Jim West, R-Spokane, and Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, agreed to propose a compromise that keeps EWU as an independent institution but overhauls control of higher education in Spokane.
The change would affect about 1,700 students from both schools.
While the plan doesn’t call for merging EWU and WSU - as West had proposed - EWU officials still would have to get approval from a statewide panel to continue any of the school’s degree programs outside Cheney. West said he dropped his push for a merger to accommodate Prince, a fellow member of the Higher Education Committee and the most powerful Republican to publicly oppose the idea.
“Neither of us wanted to see Eastern destroyed,” West said Tuesday. “This does something to strengthen the Cheney campus but also takes care of the need to have a big research school in Spokane.”
The bill gives EWU a chance to build its sagging enrollment and gives Spokane business leaders the research institution they want to help boost the economy, Prince said.
“My feeling was, with the baby-boom bubble coming at us, we’re going to need all the regional schools we have,” Prince said. “Spokane’s problem is it just wanted research. I think this is the answer everyone should be able to accept.”
But that’s not the case for Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, an economics professor at EWU.
“Why is it up to the Legislature to micromanage an institution to the point that it tells them where they can offer a program?” Brown asked.
“Turning over higher education to one institution does not seem to me like the answer. Saying everything would be fine with Eastern if they would just stay in Cheney is not the answer either.”
One EWU official predicted the proposal would further frustrate area college students, who’ll have to pay higher tuition to attend WSU or drive to Cheney for the same education they used to get in Spokane.
“At first blush, I think it’s kind of interesting that the place with over 1,100 students is being taken over by the place with about 365 students,” said James Kirschbaum, chairman of EWU’s trustees. “You’re giving higher education in Spokane, where 75 percent of Eastern students come from, to Washington State. I think you’re cheating Spokane students.”
But West and Prince maintain a change is needed - for students, for EWU and for Spokane.
“I kept asking the Eastern folks, ‘What’s your proposal?”’ Prince said. “They don’t really have one.”
The lawmakers’ five-page proposal would eliminate the Joint Center for Higher Education, a regional panel of six colleges and universities set up a decade ago to end infighting between the schools.
In its place, the bill would put WSU in charge of all upper-division and graduate-level programs in Spokane. The school and its board of regents would answer only to the statewide Higher Education Coordinating Board, a nine-member citizens panel.
At the request of Gov. Gary Locke, the HEC Board is expected to make recommendations next week on ways to improve college programs in Spokane.
But Marcus Gaspard, executive director of the board, said the senators’ ideas are consistent with what the HEC Board has been considering.
“Everybody is going in the same direction,” he said. “I don’t think we’re looking at fewer opportunities for students, but more. There’s certainly a desire to streamline and create some clarity about what’s available and who has the authority” in Spokane, Gaspard added.
The HEC Board conducted a two-day fact-finding mission in Spokane earlier this month, meeting with students, faculty and employees of WSU and EWU.
With WSU controlling Spokane, Gaspard said, the HEC Board would be open to permitting introduction of some doctorate programs that don’t duplicate those in Pullman.
However, the HEC Board is undecided about an earlier proposal from West and Brown to convert the Spokane Intercollegiate Research & Technology Institute into an independent agency.
Bill Gray, dean of WSU-Spokane, said the university would be a natural for managing SIRTI.
“WSU has got the science and engineering, and that’s what you need for SIRTI to go forward,” he said. “Otherwise, I don’t think they have the critical mass.”
WSU President Sam Smith has committed to the HEC Board to move certain unnamed research and faculty members to Spokane.
A move to put WSU in charge likely would satisfy the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce and its 2,500 members. The agency told the HEC Board that business owners want a research institution in Spokane that would develop advanced programs in engineering, information systems and biomedical fields.
Politically, the new proposal is expected to go far. West is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and has the ear of GOP leadership. Prince was his chief opponent.
“With West’s power, … my assumption is this battle is over,” said Kirschbaum, an executive with Source Capital Management.
Smith, who has been involved in merger discussions since early 1997, said he welcomes the change.
“We have stated all along that if we were asked to play a larger role in Spokane, we’d be more than ready to respond,” he said.