This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
The University of Washington Tacoma is passing two momentous milestones this year.
A week ago, it awarded its 10,000th diploma at commencement ceremonies in the Tacoma Dome. And 2010 happens to be the school’s 20th birthday; it first opened in 1990, in rented downtown office space.
Its first graduating class consisted of four students; this year’s graduates numbered more than 1,200.
The creation and growth of the UWT may be the single most important development in the South Sound over the last quarter century.
The school was conceived in the 1980s as part of a grand strategy to expand college opportunity to corners of the state that suffered from the lack of it. In Washington’s pioneering days, such cities as Seattle, Cheney, Ellensburg and Bellingham looked like big comers; anticipating their growth into major metropolitan areas, the state’s founders gave them the public colleges.
They got Seattle right but failed to provide for Tacoma, Olympia, the Tri-Cities, Spokane, Vancouver and the dense populations between Bothell and Everett. Olympia ultimately got The Evergreen State College, but the rest went without affordable public four-year schools.
It hurt – badly. The Tacoma area suffered the greatest imbalance between population and opportunity; unsurprisingly, Pierce County’s high-schoolers wound up with a self-perpetuating culture of not moving on to college. In particular, family breadwinners, single mothers and the poor lacked the means to move away and enroll in traditional four-year schools.
This is precisely the problem the UWT was created to solve. If it hasn’t done enough, it’s only because it isn’t yet large enough. For good reasons and bad, the Legislature hasn’t expanded the university on the original schedule.
Few universities are so intimately connected to their communities. The South Sound was so hungry for a public university that it embraced the UWT fiercely by the time it finally arrived. Civic leaders and philanthropists have showered financial and political support on the school. A single gift of $15 million from the Milgard family in 2003, for example, put booster rockets on the UWT’s young business administration program.
Urban renewal is another reason to love the UWT.
The school’s campus, which opened in 1997, was created in the then-decrepit historical district across Pacific Avenue from Union Station. After derelict old buildings were rehabilitated and filled with classrooms and offices, their century-old elegance and grandeur – and the influx of students, faculty and retailers – turned a blight into a vibrant and beautiful urban center.
The campus’ growth has paralleled the Foss Waterway restoration as one of the largest and most successful redevelopment projects in the Northwest.
Still, that transformation is only a byproduct of the UWT’s original mission: to help ensure that aspiring college students are not frozen out of opportunity by accidents of geography. Those 10,000 diplomas show how much the school has done to make good on its promise.