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

Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard, on the campus Credit: 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.

Shepard’s three-year run at Western has been plagued by budget cuts and tuition increases, both producing campus unhappiness. When I reviewed his first year in July 2009, he got good grades for transparency but his direction for Western’s long-range future was still unclear. He continues to be popular and trusted. Whether he can pull off a major restructuring, or “rebase” as he calls it, will ultimately come down to his ability to sell it to faculty and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Western alumni.

It will be easiest to move ahead in non-teaching areas, and he should pick up savings with cuts in several areas. For many managers, the hardest to cut are those who work down the hall, and over the years Western had mission creep of sorts in Old Main, the administrative headquarters. Shepard proposes serious cutbacks in student affairs and academic support services and the business and financial affairs office. An assistant vice president and two directors would be among several jobs eliminated and student support in health, athletics and recreation, student union, and the bookstore would be trimmed. An associate director would be cut in human resources. The cuts are significant but should not impact academic quality; nor is there alumni pushback to consider in these areas.

It is in the academic area that Shepard must do the most selling, primarily to tenured faculty, who traditionally play a large role in Western governance. He has promised that his plans will not mean job loss for any tenured professor, nor, barring additional state cuts, professors on tenure track but not yet tenured. No promises are made to fill vacant tenure-track positions, a worry for some departments, but labor contracts will be fulfilled.

Shepard’s proposals follow months of campus discussions and feedback from faculty and staff, and will be followed by additional honing by the University Resource and Planning Council, with representatives from campus constituencies. A final plan goes to the Board of Trustees in June.

To make the most of his tenured faculty, Shepard wants to eliminate undergraduate classes with fewer than ten students and several small graduate programs that serve few students but take faculty and staff time to supervise; no heavy opposition should be expected.

If there is pushback to Shepard’s proposals, it is likely to come in three areas that have a special place in Western’s history: Huxley College of the Environment, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, and the Department of Liberal Studies.

Huxley and Fairhaven, founded during Western’s creative (critics would say outrageous) 1960s, have become iconic and have given the university a niche for students seeking nontraditional and activist learning. Liberal Studies is a small department but a lynchpin to the university’s commitment to the liberal arts.

Huxley and Fairhaven are periodically under fire from traditional disciplines that criticize activist faculty and alternative forms of teaching and structure. Critics covet the faculty positions and the students of the experimental programs and in times of economic crunch see an opportunity to close down the radicals.

Huxley was founded in 1969, closely linked to the rising environmental movement. Shepard, in his presentation of rebasing, described Huxley: “Forty years ago, having a college focused on the environment was a trail-blazing step. Today, curricular attention to environmental concerns pervade the university and every college from the College of Fine and Performing Arts to the College of Business and Economics with significant expertise to be found also in the College of Science and Technology and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. While, in a very real sense, we have become a University of the Environment, the basic organizational approach in Huxley has remained largely the same.”

Actually, Huxley has changed over 42 years. The original idea of a seamless program linking scientists, educators, and social scientists broke down 15 years ago when the college in essence split into two separate departments under a single dean. But it remains a home for committed environmentalists and, despite the internal split, remains vulnerable to traditionalists in science research.

The crux of the matter is familiar to any campus: a turf war that has gone on for as long as Huxley has existed. Professors in the “pure sciences,” such as biology, geology and math, have often disparaged Huxley’s activism and the inter-disciplinary nature of its faculty. Huxley is a rare creature not found on other campuses, and although its mission fits well in the Northwest, it would not travel well outside the region. If Shepard is suggesting simply moving the boxes around within Huxley he will have little opposition —and little cost reduction. But if he is thinking about putting Huxley under the College of Science and Technology, which would be more in line with other universities, he may step in a bear trap of his own design.

Huxley alumni are numerous, vocal, and often well placed. A new history of the college, written by former Seattle Times reporter Bill Dietrich and due to be published next month, focuses on prominent graduates; Dietrich is quoted on the Huxley web site, “Huxley College has staying power. One of the questions we ask in the book is ‘was the experiment successful and should it continue?’ The answer is affirmative.”

Dietrich is leaving his position as part-time Huxley professor and advisor to The Planet, an award-winning student environmental magazine, to return to fulltime writing. The Planet’s last issue is this month; the environmental journalism major is being eliminated, falling between the two stools of Huxley and Journalism, neither of which was willing to carry its small budget (the program was dear to my heart, and home for some of my best students in the 1990s; much will be lost).

Regarding Fairhaven, Shepard told the Western community: “Fairhaven has been a leader in attracting students from across the country, around the world, and from diverse backgrounds. It is also true that, because of the nature of the pedagogical approach, Fairhaven is one of our most expensive programs on a cost per student basis. . . . We must continue the special Fairhaven approach and, consequential, must critically examine ways to bring costs per student closer to what is found across the university — e.g., further recruitment of non-resident students, further administrative reorganization, and possibly further concentrating on the upper division level while drawing upon the special expertise in Fairhaven to enrich the general education of all Western students.”

As with Huxley, it is the uncertainty beneath the president’s proposal that will concern, in particular, Fairhaven grads who fondly remember the Outback Farm and the quirkiness of the college, which shaped a lot of lives in a positive way. Much of the success of Fairhaven, and a great deal of its charm and appeal to young people, is its ability to live outside the box and outside at least some of the academic rules that govern more conventional programs and students.

The full title of the school, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, echoes the concept of a holistic rather than segmented learning environment. Like Huxley, Fairhaven is vulnerable to seeing its special niche eroded by traditional departments that would like the extra student credits that could be obtained by pulling Fairhaven students into their majors.

Fairhaven is the living reminder of campus ferment in the 1960s; the college, founded in 1967, is unabashedly liberal and the most diverse on campus in many ways. It still likes to made waves; its mission statement contains a challenge, “The college assumes a responsibility to provide leadership for Western Washington University in diversifying the curriculum, faculty, and student body, as well as demonstrating models for alternative curricular forms and course structures.” Not everyone on campus is comfortable with that, but the college has been a magnet for students who want to make a difference.

If Fairhaven is unabashedly liberal, the Department of Liberal Studies is decidedly not, at least in the political sense that most people associate with the term “liberal.” The very first “commonly asked question” on its web site brings this response: “No, we do not just ‘study liberals’! ‘Liberal Studies’ is a name for interdisciplinary departments that focus on the ‘liberal arts’, and the ‘liberal arts’ refer to the kinds of skills and the areas of knowledge which all educated people should have, before they begin specialized training for their career or profession.”

Liberal Studies is much closer in concept to classical studies than it is to political science, and as a discipline is unique to Western, at least in Washington state. Its 10-person faculty have doctorates in history, religion, medieval studies, comparative literature, and art history. Most of their teaching is in the important General University Requirements (GUR) classes, fulfilling the need to bring to undergraduates a broader sense of the world and its cultures than might be found within a traditional discipline.

Shepard proposes to close the small department and shift its tenured professors to departments that can use their expertise. This would be less controversial than making major changes at Fairhaven or Huxley; it would also produce less savings.

Liberal Studies is the third program remaining from Western’s educational ferment of the 1960s; the program opened in 1970, shortly after Huxley and Fairhaven. The programs have been part of the unique appeal of Western to students who choose the school over more traditional institutions. No one I talked to expects Huxley or Fairhaven to be disbanded like Liberal Studies; the concerns I hear center on possible loss of Western’s approach to interdisciplinary or holistic education.

Western certainly could function and even excel without its unique programs, as a standard, discipline-based university delivering basically the same education as other regional comprehensive four-year universities, and doing it in an attractive setting close to thousands of prospective students. There is always support for basics, and controversy over innovative and unconventional approaches that some will always see as frills.

The remaining “experiments” from Western’s 1960s era have weathered critics for four decades and in the current budget climate they may seem to some as a frill; but the programs have been a successful frill, and if lost or substantially diminished will not be easily recovered.

Preserving that particular aspect of Western’s history while attacking serious financial challenges is not an easy task for Shepard and his colleagues and it may not be possible. Western certainly will continue to attract its large share of Washington students and they will get an excellent education.

But it is also dicey tinkering with icons; there’s a reason why they became icons.

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