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EWU electrical engineering degree approved

It wasn’t the slam-dunk college officials had hoped for, but Eastern Washington University won approval Thursday to offer bachelor degrees in electrical engineering.

Instead of starting the program on the high-demand West Side at North Seattle Community College as originally proposed, EWU must start in Cheney on a conditional approval.

This is the first time that one of the state’s regional schools has been allowed to offer the degree. Until 2003, state bachelor degrees in electrical engineering could only come from the University of Washington or Washington State University. Lawmakers changed that rule last year.

But the staff of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board challenged the proposal, saying there’s not a clear need for it.

“In the near term, it appears the state has a sufficient supply of electrical engineers” and students, a report from the HEC Board staff concluded. In fact, it’s unclear whether electrical engineering is a growth industry, the report said. Many recent graduates and experienced professionals in the field, the report said, can’t find work despite good credentials. And some experts say the picture will remain bleak due to foreign “outsourcing” of such work by U.S. companies.

Five private colleges in Washington, including Gonzaga University and Seattle Pacific University, already offer electrical engineering degrees. In the past, Gonzaga opposed EWU’s plans to offer the degree, pointing out how their own electrical engineering program numbers have gone soft since the economy dropped.

The HEC Board staff also said it was unconvinced that Eastern could recruit enough qualified students for such a program.

Negotiations between the board and Eastern have apparently been testy. EWU President Stephen Jordan said he was “bothered and disturbed” by the tone and content of the staff recommendation to reject EWU’s original proposal. HEC Board member Ann Ramsay-Jenkins rebuked Jordan and his staff for not dealing with HEC staff “in an environment of mutual respect.”

“We’re not comfortable with the manner in which the (HEC) staff was treated during this,” she said.

Tom Griffith, dean of math, science and social sciences at North Seattle Community College, said, “I was in a few of those meetings, and I could say the same thing about the other camp.”

Griffith said he was “insulted” by some of the comments that questioned the quality of a program offered by EWU and a community college.

“It rubbed me the wrong way,” Griffith said. “What we really need to think about is the students. Students need options. This (would have) provided them more options.”

Jordan downplayed the disputes.

“Obviously, we came to this agreement,” Jordan said. “You’ve got strong-willed people on both sides.”

The sole “no” vote on EWU’s proposal came from Seattle board member Gene Colin, who said he cannot fathom why EWU is trying to “cobble together” such a program.

Referring to EWU’s lack of engineering facilities and faculty, he said the conditional approval was tantamount to giving someone approval to do surgery without an operating room, doctors or hospital.

“Why would we do that?” Colin said.

Jordan said the degree is crucial to EWU’s new school of computing and engineering sciences, which will attempt to marry hardware and software studies, particularly as they relate to computer network security.

“We think it will create a very unique niche for our area” and draw new businesses to the region, Jordan said.

Not everyone saw it that way.

“I’m taking an awful lot of heat from the independent schools because they’re not filling up their freshman quotas (in electrical engineering),” said HEC board chairman Bob Craves of Redmond.

Gonzaga said in the fall of 2001, 24 freshmen had signed up for electrical engineering. By fall 2003, 11 freshmen had signed up.

In the end, the staff recommended that the board allow the new degree at EWU, under several conditions, which EWU said in a news release it could complete by July.

In granting conditional approval, the HECB directed Eastern to update its documentation of need for the program, attain a student-faculty ratio of no more than 18-1 in the program, seek full accreditation for the Cheney-based program before proposing extension of the degree to North Seattle Community College, establish a program advisory committee, create a plan to recruit a diverse student population for the program and address the sources and amounts of funding.

EWU originally wanted to offer the engineering program near the high-demand Puget Sound area. After three years, EWU wanted to bring the program to Cheney.

“We are disappointed at not being able to start the program at North Seattle as we had hoped,” said Ray Soltero, dean of the EWU College of Science, Mathematics & Technology, in a news release.

EWU will continue to seek approval to offer the electrical engineering program at NSCC once the current criteria is met, Soltero said.