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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