U.W.'s declaration of independence

The University feels a deep grievance, and President Emmert's letter to faculty and staff suggests the era of legislative detente is ending.
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Former U.W. President Mark Emmert

The University feels a deep grievance, and President Emmert's letter to faculty and staff suggests the era of legislative detente is ending.

Late Monday night, University of Washington President Mark Emmert, normally the most politic of men, sent to the "university community" a message about the new state budget. To my ear, it suggests one very angry Emmert, threatening a kind of declaration of independence from the state government, which had just finished savaging the U.W. budget.

The letter (full text here) starts with the claim that the U.W. got an unfair double whammy, pointing out that the Legislature reduced state funding to the six colleges and universities "more than any other sector in state government"; further, the UW "received the highest percentage cut in all of higher education &mdash 26 percent." Emmert calls this "a stark and sobering number," one that is "unprecedented in state history." Regarding the reduction, he adds, "as far as we know, it is by far the largest reduction in state support to a flagship university by any state in the nation." Tough language, completely devoid of any gratitude.

That claim of the largest reduction by any state may be true for a one year-cut, but state universities all over are being defunded by their states, starting well before the recession. According to a valuable overview by Andrew Delbanco in The New York Review of Books, the University of Virginia now gets only 8 percent of its funding from the state of Virginia. Wisconsin, which dearly loves its state university, witnessed a drop in the past decade from 30 percent to 19 percent.

What is happening has been called by Peter Sacks (author of Tearing down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education) a "massive disinvestment" by states in their public universities. The difference is largely being made up by research grants, endowment drives, and tuition boosts — as at the U.W., where tuition will rise 30 percent over the next two years. Tuition charges at public universities, Delbanco observes, "have been climbing even faster than at private universities." The old belief in low-cost, fairly-high-quality education for a large number of residents of a state is fading away, just as research universities are drifting away from their more populist beginnings.

Factoring in those tuition increases, assuming they are approved by the Regents in June, and depending on hikes to be determined for graduate, professional, and non-resident students, the U.W. budget cut for the coming biennium will be about 12 percent or $100 million. Had the more generous budgets of the Senate and the Governor prevailed, the cut would have been about 10 percent, according to U.W. estimates. Rather oddly, since House Speaker Frank Chopp both represents the U.W. district and is a Husky alum, the House took out its anti-Seattle and anti-Husky animus on the institution. (One reason: the absence of Rep. Helen Sommers, long a staunch defender of U.W. interests.)

Then comes the paragraph where Emmert issues his not-too-veiled declaration of independence:

This dramatic reduction in state support signals a fundamental change in our relationship with the state. For the first time in our history, tuition revenue will exceed state support. The funding the state of Washington provides to its public universities has fallen to among the lowest levels in the nation. These realities will force us to change the fundamental financial model by which we operate and to reconsider the manner in which we approach our core mission. We certainly will not allow these cuts to become an excuse for slipping backward by simply reducing our quality or our commitment to academic excellence. On the contrary, as we work our way through this, I am confident that we can find new approaches that will allow the UW to become an even more prominent national and international university. (Emphases mine.)

And what might "fundamental change in our relationship with the state" amount to, aside from an era of bad feelings? When you talk to university administrators, you hear about the Michigan model, which is to push tuition up toward private levels, and a shift of enrollment patterns to allow in more non-state and international students, who pay much higher tuition. Such was the step the University of Oregon was forced to take years ago, shifting from a U.W. model of about 80 percent state residents as undergraduates to around 50 percent.

The other new direction, spelled out in this excellent story in Seattlepi.com, is to be "market-driven," focusing resources on departments that bring in the most money and attract the most students — as opposed to those areas the Legislature has instructed the U.W. to concentrate on.

Exactly how the U.W. would get the Legislature to allow these shifts is not clear. Lining up political and business support to put pressure on the Olympians is one way, but it risks creating even more animosity. Maybe tempers will cool, but I get a sense that a duel has been threatened, a glove has been thrown down.


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