For a state that lags far behind the rest of the nation in the production of science and engineering graduates, Northeastern University’s entry into Washington’s higher education marketplace should be welcome news. Some in the field though, worry the Boston-based school’s arrival might give Washingtonians a false sense of security about the future of higher education.
The private research university opened its Seattle satellite campus last month in South Lake Union. The campus occupies a sleek warren of offices nestled in a building it shares with the Institute for Systems Biology. (ISB's president is former University of Washington professor of molecular biotechnology Leroy Hood.) Nearby, Amazon, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation loom as pillars of Seattle’s growing medical and technological locus.
Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun believes the Seattle campus is helping to reshape higher education in the region. “We spent two years assessing the needs of the Seattle community and met with higher education, civic and business leaders. We want to establish long-term roots and become part of the fabric of this region,” he said during a visit to Seattle last week.
Northeastern is known primarily for its cooperative education program, where students integrate academic studies with six-month periods of professional work experience. Through a hybrid online and face-to-face education model, the school’s new campus will offer 28 masters degrees in an array of fields: bioinformatics, computer science, engineering management and commerce and economic development. It will also offer four doctoral programs in education, law and policy, nursing practice and physical therapy.
Northeastern Seattle Campus CEO and Dean Tayloe Washburn sees the new campus as an opportunity to tap into the state’s growing need for a highly educated workforce. “Our local businesses are technology-based. Northeastern’s targeted students are 28-45 years old and working professionals in all STEM fields. … As a region, we are surprisingly low in graduate programs for these people.”
Washburn, a former Seattle land-use attorney, chairs the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) workforce development task force and served as Gov. Christine Gregoire’s point person for the Boeing 737 retention initiative. “WTIA decided in 2012 that providing the needed workforce required by our tech companies of all types was a top strategic initiative,” said Washburn.
That conclusion was borne out earlier by a Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board report in 2011, which documented the need for increased production of graduate degrees in fields such as computer science, engineering, health occupations, and life sciences. The report underscored the goal of decreasing the state’s dependence on imported talent and providing greater job opportunities for Washington State residents.
Local leaders weigh in
Many Seattle business leaders share Aoun’s optimism, viewing Northeastern’s arrival as a boon to the Puget Sound region’s economy — especially its surging information technology sector.
Steve Leahy, former Seattle Chamber president and Washington State Director of America’s Edge is one of them. “There’s more room for graduate programs that focus on high-demand career fields in science and technology,” he said. “We’re trying to grow those clusters and need as many resources as possible to meet industry demand.”
“My feeling is that we are creating a new University District of Downtown,” said Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin. “A number of private colleges are relocating themselves to be proximate to the employers and employees who might use them, and this is a good thing.”
“Local companies need highly-skilled and educated folks. There is a big gap between our region’s workforce needs and available skilled employees,” echoed Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce president Maud Daudon. “Northeastern has a laser focus on that gap. They did their homework and talked to all the stakeholders, and they’ve been warmly received.”
Warm may be the key word there.
Among state education leaders, opinions are more varied. Ed Lazowska, the University of Washington’s Bill & Melinda Gates Chair of Computer Science & Engineering, is positive about the opportunities Northeastern will provide, but sounds a cautionary note. “There’s no doubt about the fact that Washington state is educationally underserved. We rank in the bottom half of the states in science and engineering bachelors degrees relative to our population, and 46th in science and engineering graduate program enrollment. So any additional high-quality education opportunities, such as those that Northeastern will provide are welcome and needed.”
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