U.W. is getting a big demotion

Scarcely any state, even those with worse economies, is punishing higher education funding more than the Washington Legislature is about to do. So long, first tier!
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University of Washington.

Scarcely any state, even those with worse economies, is punishing higher education funding more than the Washington Legislature is about to do. So long, first tier!

With much of Rome burning, Washington state's de-funding of higher education doesn't even register on the national Doppler. It should. Washington's 23-31 percent cuts are more than twice that of quasi-bankrupt California and ten times that of New Mexico.

And what of Michigan, with its anemic economy and Detroit's Big Three on life support? Try 3 percent. Thankfully, there's still one Western state that out flunks Washington (hint: What's learned in Vegas stays in Vegas).

Mention higher-ed funding to state lawmakers peering down a $9 billion budget hole, and you might as well be dressed in black tie hustling support for the Seattle Opera. With senate and house budgets that drop health care coverage for poor children and strip essential services for the elderly and the indigent, struggling English majors do not a compelling case make.

These unprecedented cuts will permanently kick the University of Washington to second-tier status and throttle programs at Washington State University and Western (note to friends of Western's Huxley School: It's rally time). Washington will import more of its talent, just as it exports its top high school grads. No more supercilious guffaws at Oregon and OSU, schools that felt the slow earthquake of 1990's Measure 5 that starved basic education and ultimately squeezed higher-ed as well.

That's right, prideful Huskies, Cougars, and Vikings, you're about to get Duck-ed!

The real and anticipated squeeze is already under way. At the UW's College of Arts and Sciences, four faculty members have announced plans to bolt over the past three weeks. It's the prelude to a brain drain: Better jump ship before the pirates heave another grappling hook.

In a recent email, one UW official observed:

Arts and Sciences provides about 70% of all undergrad student credit hours, so try as we might to put students first (and, we WILL try), it will be impossible to look at cuts the size we are talking about without having a major impact on our students — on the quality of their education, on their ability to get into their first, or second, or third choice majors, on their ability to graduate on time, on their ability to engage with faculty and graduate students in work on research projects, service learning projects, etc.

For veteran social-services lobbyist Nick Federici, all the higher-ed "turning point" chatter echoes like so much white noise. Federici advocates an inverted pyramid of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs: First, worry about hunger and health and safety. Higher education is just fine, thank you very much, but only after the basics are satisfied.

Herein lies the curse of a zero-sum budget: It pits advocates for education against advocates for low-income healthcare and the elderly. And lobbyists like Federici are shrewd, recognizing that lawmakers respond viscerally when confronted with the very children and elderly and disabled men and women they're about to de-fund.

Thankfully, the UW does a much better job trumpeting higher ed than it a did a decade ago. Seasoned legislative hands like Dick Thompson and now Randy Hodgins professionalized advocacy, reminding lawmakers of higher ed's economic and social windfall.

University boosterism is an uphill charge, although it shouldn't be. The passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944 democratized a college education, making the derisive use of "elitist" (read: rich kids) at public universities a non-starter. Nevertheless, as historian Richard Hofstadter argued in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, pummeling eggheads is the American way. Universities are often located in big cities, espouse secular ideas, and produce annoying, tweed-wearing professors unable to communicate in non-jargonese.

Mention the UW in Olympia and you might hear what sounds like a bastardization of the television ad for Pace Picante Sauce. Why it says here that this university is made in Sea-attle. SEA-ATTLE! (This is when you break in and shriek that the UW is NOT the Viaduct).

The Governor's proposed 28 percent tuition hike (over two years) will cushion the higher-ed blow a bit (except for the thousands of students who will need to apply for that many more Pell grants). It's the classic crisis magoozle (and a savvy one), a case study in the reactive nature of education planning. Tuition should have gone up a long time ago, phased in over several years. This hike is as stunning and abrupt as it is necessary.

A display just outside UW Tower (the old SAFECO building) offers one bygone expression of hope. It's a small exhibit entitled Open to Question documenting the halcyon days of University District activism. In 1970 the battle cry was, "Take the freeway!" which 10,000 student activists promptly did.

Want to stop Washington universities from getting kicked to second and third-tier status? Time is running short, kids. Take the freeway!


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson