16% State Support: When Does the UW Admit It is a Private School?

August 29, 2010

Cuts Intensify Identity Crisis for Washington’s Flagship Campus

Clouds gather over the flagship campus of the U. of Washington. The campus, administrators say, is expected to be both “racehorse and workhorse” for the state. The state lacks the depth of public-university systems in some other states. As a result, the university preserves 4,000 freshman spots for state residents.

By Paul Fain

Chronicle for Higher Education.


Washington’s flagship university doesn’t look like it has money problems. The picturesque campus, a blend of Gothic architecture and the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest, draws more federal research dollars than any other public university in the country. And the University of Washington raised $2.7-billion in a recent campaign from its perch in this entrepreneurial city.

But cracks are appearing under the surface. The state is not paying for the many construction projects here, and severe budget cuts are now threatening quality at the university, particularly for undergraduates who are coping with larger classes and fewer research opportunities, one of the institution’s core strengths.

Over 15 months the university absorbed a 33-percent, or $134-million, cut in core state funds. And, like many flagships across the country, it is struggling with fundamental questions about whom it should be serving and how.

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Stephen Brashear for The Chronicle

Jake Faleschini is a recent graduate of the U. of Washington law school who has lobbied state lawmakers for more money for the university. He says the divide between the eastern and western sides of the state has undermined support.

Stephen Brashear for The Chronicle

Jake Faleschini is a recent graduate of the U. of Washington law school who has lobbied state lawmakers for more money for the university. He says the divide between the eastern and western sides of the state has undermined support.

Stephen Brashear for The Chronicle

Randy Hodgins, vice president for external affairs at the U. of Washington, stands in front of a new molecular-engineering building going up on the campus. “Our success is what’s doing us in,” he says.

Stephen Brashear for The Chronicle

Randy Hodgins, vice president for external affairs at the U. of Washington, stands in front of a new molecular-engineering building going up on the campus. “Our success is what’s doing us in,” he says.

In a frustrating paradox, Washington and other top public universities are victims of their own success. Every research-support milestone or big donation takes a whack at the urgency of their budget appeals. But that money can’t be used for faculty raises or for the day-to-day costs of educating students, which can be difficult to explain to the general public.

The state’s lawmakers say they don’t want to hurt their world-class university. To be sure, they face tough choices during the state’s worst economic slump in 80 years. What should the Legislature cut to counter huge revenue gaps? Health care, prisons, and schools are competing priorities, and lack outside revenue sources.

Even community colleges and regional public universities are less-appealing targets for state budget cutters. They lack the tuition flexibility and fund-raising capacity of a flagship, and also train displaced workers, a mission that becomes an even higher priority in tight times.

State budget cuts leave only two choices for many flagships: Let quality slip or privatize.

So far, most have chosen privatization to avert mediocrity. The Universities of Colorado at Boulder, Michigan, and Virginia have put the most distance between themselves and their capitals, with the state agreeing to cut red tape in exchange for dwindling support. Flagships in Arizona, California, Florida, and New York are among those following their lead, increasing tuition, adding out-of-state students (who often pay two or three times as much as residents), or pursuing some autonomy.

Washington’s flagship is privatizing, too. In the wake of cuts, the university is pushing for the state government to relinquish some control of tuition setting and financial management. The university is also adding more out-of-state students. In five years, 33 percent of its approximately 6,000 freshmen will come from outside Washington, compared with 19 percent in 2008.

And in perhaps the clearest evidence of the private shift, revenue from students and their families this year topped the amount the state contributes to instruction, a change university officials liken to crossing the Rubicon.

As a result, the university has moved closer to the budget model of a flagship like the University of Michigan, where the private shift has been among the most extreme. There, students and their families pay nearly three times as much as the state.

Some flagships, though, have been able to retain more of their public financing. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has long been the gold standard for public support of flagships, with revenue from tuition and fees there totaling less than half the state’s contribution.

“State money and tuition is a hydraulic,” says Paul E. Jenny, Washington’s vice provost for planning and budgeting. “One goes up and the other goes down.”

Playing Ball With Lawmakers

The University of Washington is the state’s third-largest employer, after Boeing and Microsoft. With 47,000 students and an operating budget of almost $4-billion, the flagship has thrown its considerable weight around to push back at the recent state cuts. University officials have complained about the cuts’ academic impact, a story that has been covered heavily by the local news media.

But the guns-blazing approach has offended some state lawmakers.

Rep. Deb Wallace says the university has been overly adversarial. The powerful Democrat, who chairs the Legislature’s higher-education committee, acknowledges that the budget woes are serious. “I’m not saying it’s easy for them.”

But she says university leaders have frustrated lawmakers by overstating the problem. For example, she says, the state cut is more like 6 percent after accounting for federal stimulus funds and tuition increases granted by the state.

“They’ve got to be intellectually honest about the reduction to play ball with us,” she says, arguing that the flagship, in particular, has lost some of the public goodwill it has earned by pushing the message of budget woes.

The university argues that stimulus money is a temporary fix and that more costs shouldn’t be passed on to students.

Such deep fault lines between the university and Democrats who describe themselves as champions of education can be jarring to observers whose mental image of Washington is full of left-leaning intellectuals and tech workers. But the state’s strong populist identity poses a challenge for the flagship, which many residents outside Seattle view as elitist.

“We tend, unfortunately, to dominate the landscape,” says Randy Hodgins, the university’s vice president for external affairs. Mr. Hodgins is a former director of state relations for the university who lived in Olympia, the capital, for 21 years. He says getting state money for the university can be a tough sell.

“It’s like being the New York Yankees,” says Mr. Hodgins. “Our success is what’s doing us in.”

East-West Divide

Washington’s populist streak can be seen in its tax policy. The state is one of seven that do not collect any personal-income taxes. It also has limited business-income taxes. As a result, state government is boom and bust in its reliance on sales and real estate.

During a slump—Washington’s revenue shortfall is an estimated $2.6-billion, or 10 percent of its general-fund spending for the current biennium—what’s left for education is spent more generously on public schools, community colleges, and financial-aid programs than on university operating budgets.

Officials at the flagship grumble about the disparity. They point to a 28-percent increase in state support for community colleges over the last decade, compared with a 3-percent decline for four-year colleges besides the flagship and a 12-percent hit for the University of Washington.

The broader support enjoyed by community colleges is partly geographic, says Helen E. Sommers, a former state representative who often advocated for the university during her 36 years in the Legislature, because Washington’s 33 community colleges are located in many lawmakers’ backyards.

The university has also long battled charges of elitism and wasteful spending.

Jake Faleschini, who graduated from Washington’s law school this year, went to Olympia several times to lobby lawmakers for more money for his university. He says the divide between the Seattle-dominated west side of the state and the rural east “drives this distaste for the University of Washington and what it does.”

Some observers say skepticism about the university can be warranted. David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, says the university has, at times, failed to be open about how its complex budget is spent. And he says other universities in the state have been quicker to adapt to changing times with efficiencies and cost-cutting.

It’s a problem he says many flagships face. “When you’re doing reasonably well, there’s not much impetus to change,” he says. While Washington and other top publics now face serious budget challenges, Mr. Longanecker says they should redirect energy spent fighting for lost state revenue toward finding cost-saving innovations, like those developed by the National Center for Academic Transformation, which redesigns course work with online and other technology components.

Despite the criticism, Washing­tonians know they need their flagship to prosper. University leaders say the conversation with lawmakers and the public over state spending has improved in recent months. In a recent statewide poll, 87 percent of respondents called the university a source of pride, and 81 percent said it was vital to the economy.

Getting people to pay for that success, however, is a different story.

‘Racehorse and Workhorse’

A new president will take the reins as the university copes with its uncertain financial future.

Mark A. Emmert will step down as Washington’s president at the end of September to take the top job at the NCAA. By most accounts, Mr. Emmert has had a good run as Washington’s president. In an editorial titled “Exit the Rainmaker,” The Seattle Times celebrated his oversight of the successful fund-raising campaign and an athletics department that no longer generates bad publicity or deficits.

Many faculty leaders and administrators here say they wish Mr. Emmert were sticking around. But the university will be able to manage the transition, they say, thanks in part to Phyllis M. Wise, the veteran provost who is filling in as interim president. And the prestigious post is likely to draw a healthy pool of applicants. R. William Funk, the prolific search consultant who brought Mr. Emmert to Washington, was recently hired by the search committee to help find his replacement.

“The success of the university is not that tenuous,” says James (J.W.) Harrington, a geography professor and chair of the Faculty Senate, “We can survive the replacement of a chief executive.”

In an interview, Mr. Emmert, who grew up in a small town near Tacoma’s port, gets frustrated when talking about the state budget.

His office overlooks an Italian-style plaza in the center of the campus and sits directly under the flight path for the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Passenger jets, many of them Boeings, pass overhead one day in June, a few hours before Mr. Emmert was to speak to an emergency Faculty Senate meeting about frozen salaries.

“Something’s wrong when you say, ‘We want our kids to get two-year degrees. We don’t care about them getting four-year degrees,'” Mr. Emmert says, referring to what he sees as a lack of support for the flagship compared with community colleges. “And you’re one of the leading high-tech states in the nation? That’s not what Microsoft’s looking for. That’s not what Boeing’s looking for, or Amazon.”

Some higher-education leaders in Washington, while generally supportive of Mr. Emmert, say a clean slate with the Legislature might be a good thing, given recent budget battles.

One reason for the testy relationship between university administrators and lawmakers may be the timeline each side uses when assessing the state crisis. The Legislature tends to focus on short, two-year time frames because it must deal with urgent decisions about budget balancing. But professors and university leaders take the long view and see decades of progress at stake in each budget fight.

During a span of one or two generations, Washington grew into a research colossus from what Mr. Hodgins calls a “big regional college where everybody’s kid goes to school.”

Two decades ago the university had a research budget of $311-million. Now, with a research budget of $1.1-billion, Washington receives more federal research dollars than any other public university, and is second only to the Johns Hopkins University. Washington’s gains in research come thanks to its strengths in biomedical sciences and engineering, as well as the university’s close ties to federal agencies.

But the state’s financial contribution is smaller than it was a decade ago. And, unlike the universities Washington now calls peers, it can’t pull back from serving resident undergraduates. The state lacks the depth of public-university systems in states where its peers are located, like California, Michigan, and Virginia.

Washington State University is a solid complement to the flagship, but with 18,000 students on the Pullman campus, it’s much smaller than Michigan State University or Virginia Tech. As a result, the University of Washington has preserved 4,000 freshman spots for residents while it increases the out-of-state mix—a growth model that won’t work for long because university leaders say the campus is already pushing up against its size limitations.

“We are the state’s racehorse and its workhorse,” says Ana Mari ­Cauce, dean of the university’s mammoth College of Arts and Sciences, which has more than 25,000 students.

To wit: The university grants 40 percent of the state’s baccalaureate degrees, and 35 percent of its students are the first in their families to attend college. Researchers at the university estimate that its annual economic impact in the state is $9.1-billion.

But despite that considerable clout, Washington lacks a key bargaining chip its corporate peers use in the state capital.

“We can’t say we’re going to move to South Carolina or Oklahoma City,” Mr. Emmert says, referring to the recent relocation of a Boeing factory and the city’s professional basketball franchise. “I can’t move my football team, and I can’t move my research base. So that means you take us for granted. If we could move this $4-billion-a-year enterprise, any governor and every legislature would be throwing tax breaks and every bit of support they could at us.”

Edge of the Cliff?

The university has preserved its academic quality for the most part, having avoided the layoffs and program cuts seen at many other universities, but that might not be the case for long, and the full impact of budget cuts won’t be known for years.

Class sizes are up, and some of the most painful cuts, while subtle compared with layoffs and program eliminations, affect a core strength: research opportunities for undergraduates.

Biology majors have felt the sting. One of the most popular and demanding undergraduate disciplines, the biology department has lost 20 percent of its graduate teaching assistants over the last two years.

H.D. (Toby) Bradshaw is a professor of biology and associate chair for the undergraduate biology curriculum. He says that laboratory space is lacking and that students now spend less time in the lab for introductory biology, which he teaches.

Two cost-cutting moves were particularly disheartening for a top research university, Mr. Bradshaw says. The biology department recently eliminated all courses for nonmajors and field trips for introductory students. That means no more bird-watching, plankton tows, or trips to old-growth forests.

Bruce Balick can relate. A professor of astronomy and a former Faculty Senate chair, Mr. Balick has taught at Washington for 35 years. His method for Astronomy 101 has long been to have classes of 25 students meet twice each week. But now he has fewer teaching assistants for larger classes, which only meet once per week.

Students are struggling, and Mr. Balick can’t keep up with the increasing flood of questions they e-mail him. “It’s a disaster,” he said.

Neither professor blames university administrators. But they and others here worry that the cuts may have lasting effects.

A precipitous decline is just around the corner, says Mr. Bradshaw. “We’re at the end of our tether.”
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