SEATTLE – The Legislature doesn’t get back to work for about three months, but leaders of Washington’s public colleges and universities began their fight for a share of dwindling state dollars Wednesday.
University presidents and student leaders were in Spokane to present preliminary budget requests for the 2011-’13 biennium to the Higher Education Coordinating Board. The budget priorities adopted by the board in November will help Gov. Chris Gregoire write her budget.
Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University, decided to tell the board what the university could accomplish with enough money from the state, instead of talking about cuts this year.
But, he is quick to add, more cuts are exactly what the governor is warning state agencies to expect.
“I could get really melodramatic about this,” Shepard said.
The Western president also said he was tempted to use humor in his presentation, noting with a chuckle that the 10 percent cut in state dollars the governor has asked for is a lot fewer dollars than it would have been before the previous two years of cuts.
Shepard said he is planning for three more tough budgeting years, including the current academic year and the next biennium. Beyond that, he is hoping the economy recovers enough to be the end of five really difficult years for the state and higher education.
Western has already made some decisions about budget cuts, including a plan to freeze hiring of new “tenure track” faculty for the next three years. The university will make do with less expensive instructors to fill openings during the next few years, Shepard said.
University officials are looking to state government to take a harder look at Washington’s priorities concerning higher education, and at the state’s financial situation.
“I think our fiscal approaches in this state are broken,” he said.
Shepard and his colleagues at Washington’s other public universities said despite state budget cuts they’ve continued to enroll more and more state students, and have found ways to innovate and evolve. He mentioned Western’s new renewable energy degree and its success in the Automotive X-Prize competition as examples.
Western wants more money to help veterans go to college, it wants to expand a program for recruiting and training bilingual educators, and it wants to expand a program designed to get more young people thinking about college.
“All of these proposals would make our state stronger,” Shepard said. “And none of them are likely to be funded.”
Shepard says he went before the state Legislature two years ago to warn that the state was about to cut into the muscle and bone of higher education, and now that prediction has come true.
Western has eliminated 14 programs and cut money to others, such as its Border Policy Research Institute. All the universities with competition for admission are turning away qualified students, and some financial aid has been cut. Campuses are getting more crowded and some classes are getting hard to get into.