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Western Washington: How much will budget cuts change a popular university?

Reduced funding has led to talk by President Bruce Shepard of "rebasing" the university. Does this mean abandoning much of the spirit of innovation created in the school's famed Huxley and Fairhaven colleges?

Red Square at Western Washington University

Red Square at Western Washington University WWU

Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard, on the campus

Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard, on the campus WWU

Three years into his tenure at Western Washington University, President Bruce Shepard is about to put his own stamp on the Bellingham campus, despite (or perhaps because of) the debilitating effect of state budget cuts.

Reduced funding has a tendency to focus the mind, and Shepard is talking about "rebasing" the university for a fiscal climate he sees stretching into the foreseeable future. Forced to accept lemons from the state, he is working on his own recipe for lemonade.

Rebasing calls for some serious cuts in programs that duplicate others on campus or off, that cost too much per student, or may be outside the core mission of the school. Shepard is proposing a hard look at several of the university's iconic programs, while picking and choosing programs to enhance or reduce.

He wants to increase the number of out-of-state and international students (who pay three times the in-state tuition) on a campus that now largely reflects the suburban population of the Puget Sound area. Of Western's 14,979 students, 75 percent live in counties touching on Puget Sound (4,644 are from King County alone). Only 148 are international students, including Canadians.

Western is, in effect, the university of choice for students in the western half of the state who don't want to or cannot enter the University of Washington. It is also a campus that has entertained some bold and innovative ideas over the past half-century and carved out a strong reputation as a liberal-arts undergraduate university. Shepard's approach will be of regional interest; nearly every public college or university faces similar challenges.

Across the country, higher education is going through similar exercises as state support drops in the face of a poor economy and the competing demands for funding by other state programs.

Western differs from the norm, perhaps, because some of the university's most innovative and publicized programs appear to be under the most scrutiny as Shepard moves forward in what he envisions as "The Next Hundred Years" at Western. He may not have a choice; budget cuts since his arrival in 2008 have pared basic programs and traditional departments to their core: tenured and tenure-track faculty. Shepard's "rebasing" carries no specific dollar amounts, either in terms of individual proposals or for the university as a whole, and it has more campus feedback to collect. But this is much more than a trim job; serious haircuts are proposed in some areas.

To maintain quality while accepting limited enrollment growth, Shepard is forced to gingerly propose the examination of some iconic Western programs that have made the Bellingham campus stand out among regional comprehensive universities.

Those programs — Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Huxley College of the Environment and the Department of Liberal Studies — date to Western's most creative and experimental period, the late 1960s, when Western responded to demands for new thinking in the delivery of higher education.

Shepard proposes to disband Liberal Studies and relocate its faculty, and to take a hard look at how Huxley and Fairhaven function, what they cost, and how they fit on a campus that has changed a lot in 40 years. Four decades ago, students knew their degree would get them a job but they wanted a rich and meaningful life; today's students are fixated on how to get a job and keep it.

Today's economic climate seems to demand a tighter-focused university shedding some optional programs and interests in order to maintain quality basic offerings. Tuition will go up, perhaps as much as 16 percent each of the next two years. Tuition increases are needed to offset declining state funds; in the past three years, the state's share of Western's budget has dropped from 60 percent to 30 percent. Like many public universities, Western is rapidly becoming something less than a state institution.

Western expects to remain competitive for Washington students, as even-larger tuition hikes are expected at the University of Washington, and the location and reputation of Western remain attractive to students from the western part of the state.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 12, 7:51 a.m. Inappropriate

As a graduate of WWU (Communications, 1990), changes to these programs need to proceed with caution. While many made fun of the "Outback of Da Farm" approach of Fairhaven, those of us who wandered into Fairhaven classes even briefly got a picture of its unique role in shaping WWU's vibe. The same is true with the Huxley program, which is one reason why WA rightfully has claim to leadership on environmental and climate issues and why WWU produces some of the best thinkers on this issue in our region and across the nation.

In the 1990s, we traveled to Olympia and lobbied then-governor Booth Gardner to restore WWU's per-student funding for the university to levels equivalent to other WA schools. We didn't get anywhere and WWU continued to do more with less than other schools.

My hope is President Shepard, who I have been impressed with thus far, not only has a plan to cut but also has a plan to restore once the economic issues lessen pressures on funding. I would hope he partners with other University Presidents to push the Legislature to think along the same lines.

Two other notes:

WWU was founded in 1867, not 1967.

I've often heard WWU described as the place where people go when they "couldn't get into the UW." I'm sure there are a few students like that, but the vast majority chose WWU purposefully. They wanted to be taught by world-class professors who actually teach classes instead of just hanging their name on a class and allowing it to be taught by grad students. They wanted an environment where teaching was the primary academic goal, and publishing for self-aggrandizement was something expected to be done on a faculty member's own time. In 5+ years at WWU, spanning my major and three minors, I was taught by a grad student exactly twice (two business calculus courses).

Along the way I learned marketing from a former senior executive at one of the biggest consumer products companies in the world. A GUR philosophy class was taught by one of the world's top thinkers in liberty, freedom, and justice. I learned about the Canadian political system from one of the top conservative minds on that subject, law from an enormously respected environmental and social justice attorney (a Fairhaven class), and English composition from faculty who were top rated teachers at Oxford and Cambridge.

I knew this about WWU and it was one reason I chose to go there. In my subsequent experience hiring graduates and working inside the UW university system as an instructor, it is all the more clear this experience is why WWU turns out excellent students very well prepared for careers and life in the wider world. WWU is by *no* means a school for people who couldn't make it somewhere else. WWU is a school for people who want a clearly superior undergraduate education directly from world-class faculty.

David Miller

ddmiller

Posted Thu, May 12, 9 a.m. Inappropriate

I watch this issue from across the state, in Spokane, with great interest. My son and daughter-in-law are recent Western alums and I know they greatly enjoyed their time there. In fact, had I known more about Western coming out of high school 30 years ago, I might well have chosen it myself over WSU.

Like Mr. Miller above me, I hope the president will retain the spirit of some of Western's unique academic programs. I'm deeply appreciative of the fact that Western has a Canadian-American studies program and Don Alper, one of the fine American scholars of Canadian politics. While I never took one of his classes, I've interviewed him once or twice over the years as a reporter and I appreciated his keen insight.

As someone who lives in conservative eastern Washington, I'm happy that Western is available as an in-state option for students looking for a slightly different culture. I'd hate to see that uniqueness eliminated as part of any restructuring.

dougnad

Posted Thu, May 12, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Actually, environmental journalism at Huxley is only being "suspended" (we have hopes it will come back when budgets improve) and Planet magazine is not ending, but will continue to publish next year. But good article, Floyd!

Bill Dietrich

Posted Thu, May 12, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

I remember President Shepard telling lawmakers in Olympia when you have to cut an existing program, it takes 10 to 15 years to build it back up when the funding returns. I think he will move cautiously.

There was a piece in the Nation yesterday, Faulty Towers, that compliments this piece.

KarenLee

Posted Thu, May 12, 1:35 p.m. Inappropriate

I’m happy to report that Bill Dietrich (above) is absolutely correct about The Planet; it will publish next year and perhaps beyond; the publication is supported by student fees. The future of environmental journalism is more complex. When Bill informed Huxley that he wouldn’t return next year, the EJ program was suspended and no faculty was hired for next fall. In his “rebasing” proposal, President Shepard proposes eliminating the EJ major, one of several small majors he hopes to eliminate. Presently enrolled majors will be allowed to finish the degree, but if Shepard’s proposals are finalized, EJ will no longer be available.

Posted Thu, May 12, 2:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Losing any of these programs or colleges would be a severe blow to the university and its current and future students. Liberal Arts classes benefit students from every major both academically and in daily life, Fairhaven classes allow for a more holistic college experience, and Huxley College has much more breadth and history than any of the other “environmental” colleges in the country (such as programs popping up at UW). Cutting programs like these will send students to other universities, as will tuition hikes and catering to out-of-state students who can still afford “public” universities.

I graduated from the Environmental Journalism program, and other alumni and I are fighting to keep it alive. It’s the only undergraduate program of its kind in the nation, and its graduates are doing phenomenal things all over the world (the same can be said of many other Huxley and Fairhaven College students as well). Western should be promoting these unique programs, not canning them because people uninvolved with them deemed them not central to the university’s purpose. I couldn’t have gotten this experience at any other college in the country. If I wanted a degree I could get anywhere else, I wouldn’t have chosen Western. How many more students will apply this same rationale and choose other schools? Western is a university that captures the identities of the Pacific Northwest and produces life-long students that make differences globally. I hope it stays that way.

A note about the administration’s “transparency”: The list of academic programs on the chopping block is only accessible through a maze of links in a series of pdf documents on the University Planning & Budgeting site, and the only two times for people to comment on these proposals were last Friday and tomorrow (May 13) between 10 and noon and 1 and 3 in Old Main 340. This is hardly conducive to an open discussion.

Posted Thu, May 12, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Whoa..I meant complements. Obviously not a journalism major.

"...one of several small majors he hopes to eliminate."

I don't know if President Shepard wants to cut or eliminate anything, but I was under the impression he was brought here to make some difficult decisions.

KarenLee

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