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The South Sound has a big stake in Emmert’s successor

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on June 2, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
June 2, 2010 6:10 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

If ever an institution needed to get it right in picking its next leader, the University of Washington does now.
The UW will soon be losing Mark Emmert, its best president in decades. There’s a lot at stake in his replacement, for the state as a whole and also for the South Sound.

Whoever takes his place will walk into a crisis. The Legislature has long been lukewarm about funding higher education, and the recession has given lawmakers ample justification to carve deeply into the UW’s muscle and bone. The threat is becoming existential.

Over the last three years, the Legislature has raised tuition while cutting its support for Washington’s flagship university by a full third. Students are writing bigger checks for skinnier course offerings, larger classes and fewer labs. For the first time, they now pay more than half the cost of their educations – a sharp erosion of a public university’s mission to offer affordable diplomas to those who can’t afford private school tuition.

The best solution, given the scarcity of funding, is to allow the UW and other public colleges to set their own tuition rates – requiring the affluent to pay full freight and offering generous financial aid to students who need it. But lawmakers have refused to cede control of tuition, preferring to impose across-the-board increases on rich and poor alike.

Next year is likely to get yet uglier, as federal bailout money run out. Emmert’s successor faces what may be a brutal battle in Olympia. It’s a battle that he or she must win.

Emmert’s departure is an especially big loss for the University of Washington Tacoma. The South Sound was a peripheral concern of his predecessors, but Emmert truly understood the need for expanding college opportunity by expanding the UW campuses in Tacoma and Bothell.

As the UW grew, he channeled much of the growth from UW-Seattle to its daughter schools. The UWT ­– which also benefited from the leadership of its chancellor, Patricia Spakes – is much larger and stronger as a result.

The South Sound will depend on Emmert’s successor to maintain that commitment to would-be students north and south of Seattle. The UWT came a very long way under Emmert and Spakes, but it has very far to go. In particular, it needs beefed-up science and technology programs. The South Sound won’t have a full range of affordable opportunities until the UWT offers additional affordable pathways into high-paying tech-intensive careers.

One very tangible legacy of Emmert’s interest in the South Sound is the fact that Tacoma civic leader Herb Simon now chairs the UW’s Board of Regents. Another is the appointment of Bill Philip – another Tacoma business leader and philanthropist – to the committee that will search for the university’s next president.

Finding another Mark Emmert will be a tall order; it’s reassuring that Simon and Philip will be part of the decision.

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