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What will legislature do without UW's Emmert to kick around?

The UW president is leaving to run the NCAA. At least he won't have to be insulted in Olympia any more.

Other colleges feel an often-intense rivalry with the University of Washington, so their administrators may not make the most sympathetic observers of the U and its leadership. So, it was particularly telling when a community college vice president came back from Olympia shocked at how legislators treated now-departing University of Washington President Mark Emmert.

The vice president told colleagues he was stunned at the disrespectful treatment of the UW president by members of one of the legislature's committees as Emmert took the time to go down to Olympia to talk to them.

Emmert will say all the right things about leaving his alma mater to become president of the NCAA, the nationwide group overseeing top-level collegiate athletics. Perhaps he will also make some acknowledgement of the bad blood directed at the university, but that remains to be seen.

Lawmakers translated their attitude into the kind of budget they enacted. The state's shortchanging of higher education isn't unique, of course.

The Association of Public Land-grant Universities has been meeting regionally, including at the UW this week, to discuss future funding for public research universities nationally. While a recent study reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that most other major countries have been maintaining their higher education budgets and even accelerating reforms to graduate more students, the recession has brought cuts over much of the United States.

It would be bad enough if the budget pressure and sneering attitude toward the UW came just from legislators who represented other parts of the state. But, even in relatively good times, some from the Seattle legislative delegation were bystanders or even parties to Washington state's underfunding of higher education. After all, House Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle (he represents the district that is home to the university) is said to be the state's most powerful politician. The departure a few years ago of Rep. Helen Sommers, the Seattle Democrat who long chaired the House's Appropriations Committee, only made the situation worse, with the stage set for moving from stinginess to harsh cuts when the economy tanked.

Emmert certainly helped himself become a target with a salary near the top nationally. But he held himself and his university to high standards.

And, whatever Olympia's negativism, Emmert was highly regarded nationally, as his new job only confirms. As NCAA president, Emmert may well have to face grandstanding lawmakers, but he will probably find, say, U.S. Sen. Orin Hatch (who has often crusaded to change college football's bowl championship system) at least a lot more interesting than the people he faced in Olympia.

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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