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Editorial: WSU leadership has taken school far in push for med school

An article from The Spokesman-Review on Dec. 15, 2006, helps highlight how remote the possibility of a second medical school seemed to be.

Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire announced plans to expand training opportunities for first-year medical and dental students and establish a nursing doctoral program, all in Spokane. She was flanked by the presidents of Washington State University, the University of Washington, Eastern Washington University and the Community Colleges of Spokane, along with then-Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown.

“We’re thrilled to be a part of this,” then-UW President Mark Emmert said.

Brown noted the expected opposition to the funding request in the Legislature, saying, “But compare that to the alternative of starting a whole new medical school or dental school,” she said.

Today, Brown is chancellor of WSU Spokane, and one of the driving forces behind a separate medical school. So, how did WSU persuade lawmakers to adopt a bill giving the Cougs a first step toward a new medical school? With determined leadership combined with a looming physician shortage, and a little luck.

The new law amends a nearly century-old statute that allowed only UW to operate a medical school. WSU Spokane already trains medical students, but as part of the five-state cooperative known as WWAMI, which is run by UW.

The UW-WSU partnership supporting WWAMI remains important to Spokane.

But, a year ago, WSU President Elson Floyd informed UW leadership that he wanted to establish a separate medical school and had commissioned a feasibility study. UW responded with a campaign to expand WWAMI. Not many observers gave WSU a chance against an entrenched powerhouse that boasts the No. 1 school in the nation for training primary care physicians.

But Floyd, WSU regents and Brown pressed on, saying rural areas of the state were suffering from debilitating doctor shortages, and their concept of a community- oriented medical school was the right prescription. Then, in February, at a critical juncture, UW President Michael Young announced he was leaving for Texas A&M University. When a replacement is hired, he or she will be the third president at the Seattle campus since the arrival of Floyd in Pullman in 2007.

“He is the most recognizable higher-education president in Olympia today,” said Gene Sharrat, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, in a Seattle Times article.

Floyd’s steady presence in Olympia and proven commitment to WSU Spokane won over key West Side legislators, some from Seattle. WSU’s strategic push put UW on the defensive, causing some to question the seemingly sudden UW campaign for medical education expansion.

WSU still needs significant funding to run a medical school, and the onus is squarely on the university to deliver the promised physicians in rural settings. But leaders in Pullman and Spokane deserve credit for getting this far.

 

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