Signs of a Silver Lining

Probably no one in the state of Washington has fond memories of the 2003 legislative session. Certainly not the legislators themselves, who struggled for months to close a mammoth budget gap. Definitely not the agencies whose budgets were cut, including all the state's public colleges and universities. And probably not even the state's citizens. Although they were spared a tax increase, Washingtonians are now feeling the effects of state cutbacks in many areas of their lives. As students returned to school this fall, for example, newspapers ran stories and editorials about shrinking opportunities for higher education. From community colleges to our own UW, officials told the same story: more students want in, but we don't have the space or dollars to admit them.

Are there any silver linings here? For higher education, there just might be. Out of the problems and frustrations of the '03 session, a bipartisan set of questions began to emerge among legislators. What exactly does the state need and want from its system of higher education? What is it willing to pay for, and how? Where is the overall plan? Is there a better way to manage the relationship between the state and its institutions of higher learning?

In the end, the Legislature appointed two working groups to look at these questions. One, led jointly by Sen. Don Carlson (R-Vancouver), chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, and Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney (D-Seattle), his counterpart in the House, was asked to address master planning for the higher-education system. The second working group grew out of efforts by two representatives, Fred Jarrett (R-Mercer Island) and Skip Priest (R-Federal Way), and has been chaired by Sen. Dave Schmidt (R-Mill Creek) and Rep. Jean Berkey (D-Everett). This group has been exploring the concept of "performance contracts" between the state and individual colleges and universities.

These "contracts"-other terms are "compacts" or "charter universities"-are being widely talked about nationally, though very few actually exist. The basic issue is this: are the old working arrangements between states and their universities adequate to current realities? Can we craft a new framework that would serve the public better? Demand for higher education is rising steeply. State resources are stretched thin. Everyone recognizes that education and research play a crucial role in the knowledge-based economy. Might it make sense for the state, in effect, to hire each institution to do a well-defined job, with agreed-upon accountability measures and costs, and then give that institution the latitude and flexibility it needs to get the job done?

At the UW, for example, the state might negotiate some very explicit goals as to the profile of the student body, quality of education, efficiency of operations and contributions to the economy. Then we might agree on a reasonable per-student cost to accomplish all this-perhaps harking back to an earlier legislative benchmark of per-student funding at the 75th percentile of our peer universities. Tuition, enrollment and state appropriations would then become variables in a single equation, instead of being set more or less independently, as they are now. The public mission would not change. The UW would be accountable for meeting clear, measurable, public goals. But a compact could free up management of the University to be more rational, more flexible, more inventive, more entrepreneurial-in other words, to give the public more bang for its buck.

The devil, of course, is in the details. If, as expected, the legislative working group recommends taking the next steps down this road, and if the 2004 Legislature agrees, then the state and one or more pilot institutions will negotiate actual contracts for approval in 2005. Then we'll put this idea to the test.

But we can be encouraged already by this evidence of leadership and fresh thinking on the part of the Legislature. The men and women, Republicans and Democrats, who are working on this idea deserve applause and support, not just from those of us in higher education, but also from the public we all serve.

However medieval our ceremonies, then, the University of Washington is very much a citizen of the modern world. That was true when I arrived here 35 years ago and it is even truer today. Not only the state of Washington, but places and people far away are better off for the work of the UW. And that is worth celebrating, at any time of year.

Lee Huntsmans signature

Lee Huntsman, Interim President

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