Hailing the recent legislative session as "remarkably successful," UW President Lee Huntsman told the regents March 19 that the UW saw progress on several budget issues. Lawmakers sent signals that "they are engaged" in the future of higher education in the state, he declared.
Most encouraging was the fact that Olympia added to the budgets of higher education institutions, rather than making cuts as it has in the last three sessions.
"As the state feels its way out of the recession, it is a good sign that lawmakers are paying attention to higher education this early in the recovery cycle," explains State Relations Director Randy Hodgins, '79, '83.
Lawmakers pumped $10 million in new enrollment funding to higher education, and the UW will see about $1.9 million of that new money. Those funds will cover 338 overenrolled undergraduate spaces the UW is currently carrying on its own.
xThe Seattle campus is currently overenrolled by about 1,200 students, so the new money will forestall some of the cuts that otherwise might have been made to reduce student numbers, Hodgins says.
"This is a down payment on our enrollment problems," he says. "It is also a huge morale boost for higher education since the issue of quality is being recognized in higher per student funding levels."
The Legislature also set aside $7 million for high demand majors, such as nursing, information technology, applied science, engineering and teaching. Colleges and universities must submit plans by the end of the year to the state higher education agency, which will divide up the money.
While the Legislature allowed private institutions in the state to compete for these funds, Gov. Gary Locke voted that part of the plan. Many public higher education supporters were concerned about taxpayer funds going directly to private schools. "We have not maximized the potential of our public institutions in the state," Hodgins says. "There is no evidence we can't handle additional enrollments if new funding is provided."
Another encouraging signal from Olympia, he adds, is a new tax break for higher education. When the Legislature rewrote tax incentives for building high tech research facilities, it included construction at state research universities. The UW and WSU will not have to pay sales tax on construction of new research facilities, provided the facility is used for that purpose for at least eight years.
"This is a direct investment in research by the state," says Hodgins. The UW Capital Projects Offices estimates it will save about $1.8 million on the construction of a new research and technology building planned for South Campus near the Northlake Tavern.
Other new funding included $1.9 million to support the Family Practice Residency Program in the medical school and $1.6 million to establish a proteomics center at the UW. Proteomics is the study of proteins in the body and their relation to disease.
New capital budget funds also include $1.7 million to complete the design of a freeway off-ramp for the UW Bothell campus. Until the ramp is completed, enrollment growth is limited for that campus.
Another top goal for the UW was to create a "performance contract" with the state. Contracts in other states have set goals for graduation rates, quality of education, financial aid packages, economic development efforts and similar measures. The state provides funds to meet these goals through more general fund revenue or higher tuition.
While some lawmakers are wary of the idea, language in the state budget calls for a prototype contract to be negotiated this year. Hodgins says the UW will work with WSU on the prototype. While it is not the full-fledged contract that UW initially pushed for, Hodgins says it was an achievement to "get the concept recognized by the Legislature."
The future of the newer campuses of UW and WSU-located in Tacoma, Bothell, Vancouver, the Tri-Cites and Spokane-spawned several proposals during the session. At one point a bill would have turned UW Bothell into a four-year campus, but that idea died in committee. Instead, there is one bill that mandates long-term studies of each upper division campus, including whether they might evolve into four-year schools.
There is a sense of urgency in the Legislature to address capacity, Hodgins explains. "Some lawmakers felt we need to get started and do something now rather than continue to study it," he says. "But can we afford to have new four-year campuses and which ones make the most sense?"
At the March press conference introducing incoming President Mark Emmert, '75, to Seattle reporters, Emmert said the fate of these newer campuses is "one of the most important questions facing the University of Washington."
Hodgins says the announcement of a new president has been well received in Olympia. "His challenge will be to build on the momentum in the coming months," he says.