What a reform agenda at UW might look like

The new president, Michael Young, would seem to have the ability and the credibility to institute the kind of dramatic changes in relation to the state that the UW badly needs.

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Michael K. Young

The new president, Michael Young, would seem to have the ability and the credibility to institute the kind of dramatic changes in relation to the state that the UW badly needs.

The introduction of the University of Washington's new president, Michael Young, has been a textbook display of smart public relations. The Seattle Times, breaking the name of the choice, has followed with walking-on-water stories and an editorial bouquet, calling him "a spectacular get."

The UW wisely took some more time to negotiate the exact details of the contract with Young, keeping the expected high salary figure out of the news during the savior-arrival stories. But at least Young's salary will be less than Mark Emmert's, which really did stick in the public's craw. So far, so good.

The key question is whether Young, with all his administrative skills, will be an effective change agent at the UW, which badly needs to find a new financial model and some smart rebranding. Young was popular as dean of the George Washington University Law School, a bastion of liberals that reportedly took well to a Republican Mormon leader.

And he accelerated funding for the University of Utah, which had previously been starved for funds by being overshadowed by Brigham Young University, the soul of Mormon higher education, and the stingy politics of Republican Utah. But these impressive achievements are not clear indicators of bold leadership, so much as effective, consensual management.

A serious change-agent will face all kinds of resistance from faculty, alums, and the Legislature. So it is perhaps valuable that Young does not arrive with the kind of drawbacks that would make him easy to de-legitimatize. He comes from a public university, not a private one. He has a good record as an academic, mostly at Columbia Law School. And the University of Utah "gets" two of the big essentials of a place like UW: a big medical school and an outsized football program.

I would worry, nonetheless, about how well the liberal/secular UW faculty will take to a president who is a full-deal Mormon and descendant of Brigham Young's brother. More likely, Young will be tied up in demonstrating that he is not some kind of alien with a conservative agenda.

A good example of how the UW might regain momentum, and not just remain on the defensive, comes from Texas, where the University of Texas is trying to evade still more accountability and productivity measures from the Legislature and a conservative think tank. Instead, the universities in Texas are putting a new reform on the table, allowing college-ready high-school students to graduate early. This saves public school systems money and it gets a better crop of candidates entering the colleges. As TexasTribune.org details the program:

It laid the groundwork for a new option for high-school students eager to head to college before their graduation. If students demonstrate sufficient competency in English, math, science, a social science and a foreign language on tests like the Advanced Placement exam, they can receive a certificate that can be traded for a diploma at any time.

There were three encouraging aspects in this Texas experiment. One was to give something back to the state and other educational bodies, rather than arrogantly asking the Legislature to find more money for higher ed. The other was the way the various higher-education entities came together on a program that could easily have been a wrangle between research universities, with high standards, and the other schools. We have just such a split in this state, with UW, WSU and Western Washington University on one team (those with relatively high demand and able to raise tuition), and Eastern, Central, and Evergreen on the other team. The third encouraging aspect: This reform is about students' affordability and access, something parents and taxpayers can appreciate more than high-level research.

Something like a Grand Bargain will be needed in this state. Some outlines are already clear. Less state money for UW or at least a cap on state funding, in exchange for more autonomy on programs and tuition-setting. This is the University of Virginia model, which seems to have been what Emmert was pursuing. Young's one signal in this regard has been to say that the University of Utah has differential tuition in place and working well. (That's a system where lower cost majors, such as humanities, pay less than higher-cost and higher-earning ones such as engineering.) But that will be a donnybrook in the faculty lounge.

Another part of the Bargain would be an increase in branches and enrollment for WSU as it takes up some of the need for more in-state students to get into state universities at affordable tuition. WSU would expand into places such as Everett and confine its enrollment to state residents — in effect becoming more like UW as that school becomes more like Stanford and UCLA, a full-bore research university with deep ties to the innovation economy. Additionally, allow places like Bellevue College in the greater Seattle area to take on more of the trappings of full-four-year colleges — a move the UW has long resisted lest more dollars be diverted from Montlake.

I'm also intrigued by an idea a former UW leader has suggested, a "third bucket" of students admitted to the UW. The first and largest by far would be state residents who pay subsidized rates of tuition, say $8,000 a year. The second would be out-of-state students at $25,000 a year, earning money for U Dub. The new, third bucket, would be other state-residing students who would pay full cost, about $15,000 a year, because the number of subsidized seats would have been used up. Under this scheme, the UW has less incentive to admit more out-of-state students, making up some of the difference with third-bucket admittees.

Another way to admit more in-state applicants is for the UW to decrease the number of community-college transfers, making up the difference with freshman admissions, which the UW prefers. That would be a political fight, however.

The new-model UW will doubtless be a blend of these and other ideas. Whether Young has the smarts and boldness to clearly reshape an outdated model for funding a state public university that has grown up into being an international powerhouse in research remains to be seen. A recovering economy and the willingness of some Olympia politicians (particularly Republicans, interestingly) to restore some of the funds cut in the past four years might also take away the urgency for a new Grand Bargain.

Massive inertia will be the strongest force in, and the biggest threat to, Young's new presidency.


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