Minding The Gap Print
Written by Tom Griffin   
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Minding The Gap
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For years, the University of Washington has tried to raise its state funding level to match the average of peer institutions. And for years, Olympia has been sympathetic to the UW’s plight, but unable to commit sufficient funds. This coming session could be different. Instead of a budget deficit, lawmakers are looking at a budget surplus. The Washington Learns commission has come out strongly in favor of more funding for all levels of education in the state. And under the new Husky Promise initiative, the UW guarantees that low-income and even some middle-income undergraduates from Washington will never have to pay tuition. In January, the UW will present a plan to eliminate the $4,000-per-student disparity between the University and its peers. Columns Editor Tom Griffin interviewed President Mark A. Emmert, ’75, on why the time has come to close the gap.

President Mark A. Emmert, '75
President Mark A. Emmert, '75. Photo by Dennis Wise.
Alumni have heard that the UW is not well funded, but most are not aware that there is about a $4,000-per-student gap between the UW and the average of its peer universities. How did that happen?

The gap has emerged over many years of underinvestment in the University of Washington. It didn’t happen because of one cataclysmic event. It occurred incrementally. It’s like scooping up a handful of sand. You’ve got this great big handful of sand in your fingers and you know it’s trickling out. You can’t see any one of those little grains of sand falling, but when you look up and then you look back down, your hands are empty. That’s what has been going on with these small, incremental losses of competitiveness. Now we find ourselves with this big yawning gap that, if not addressed, is going to have a profoundly negative impact on the University.

What does it mean to have that much less funding per student? Give me an example in a typical undergraduate’s experience.

We’re a great university now, but imagine if classes were smaller. Imagine if there were more courses for students, so they could graduate on time without as much of a challenge. Imagine if we had much better student-faculty ratios and much better advising for those students. Imagine if we had better technology for all of our students. Imagine if we could allow more of them to take advantage of the research opportunities or international studies. That’s a different kind of University of Washington. And that’s where this funding gap shows up.

You like to tell audiences about the quality of the University of Washington. Both Newsweek and The Economist magazines recently named us one of the top universities in the world. But isn’t there a disconnect between those achievements and the funding gap? How did we get so good with so little money?

First of all, it’s because we have terrific people. All of the success that we have is a function of great professors and great staff. We find ourselves, though, increasingly behind the eight ball when it comes to recruiting and paying for those faculty and staff because of that gap. Seattle once was a beautiful and relatively inexpensive city. Now it’s a beautiful city, but it’s an expensive city. When you’re recruiting someone from Madison, Wis., or Iowa City, Iowa, they look at the cost of living and go, “Oh my goodness. I can’t come here for that salary.”

The second factor is that most of the rankings are in areas where we have great success with externally funded research. That’s a good thing. But if you’re in the history department, that doesn’t help you very much. If you’re in the theater department, that doesn’t help you very much. If you’re trying to pay for advisors, that doesn’t help you very much. So we’re at risk of having two Universities of Washington: Those faculty and staff who can enjoy the benefits of external funding and those who can’t. We don’t want to have two UWs. We want to have one.

We are close to raising $2 billion in our eight-year capital campaign and we earned almost $1 billion last year in research income. Why can’t we use some of this money to close the gap?

That’s a common misperception about research funding and private donations. On the research side, that’s all money that is highly restricted. It’s being given for a very specific purpose, to do research on one project and one project alone. You can’t take research dollars that are for a cancer research program and spend them on better advising for undergraduates.

In fact, it would be illegal if you did that.

It would literally be illegal. Now when a faculty member gets a research grant, that professor will also typically have money in for undergraduates and graduates to do research with him or her. So the students get a huge benefit, but it can’t replace core funding for your academic programs.

On the fund-raising campaign, we’ve just been so wonderfully successful. Our alumni and friends have been so generous. It’s quite overwhelming. We’ve raised $1.8 billion out of a $2 billion goal. But there, too, the gifts from our donors are highly specified. A donor doesn’t come in and say here’s a million dollars, do with it as you will. That happens, but not very often. Usually they’ll come in and they’ll want to endow a professorship or a chair or a scholarship program. It doesn’t replace the state or the tuition funding. It’s that margin of excellence that moves us from being a really great university to the best.