From the President

Preserving the "Public" in a Public University

I grew up as a faculty kid at Rutgers, the public university of New Jersey. I understood pretty early what faculty (my parents) did, but I didn't really think much about the "public" in "public university." Even when I became an academic myself-a student of American political history, a teacher back at Rutgers-it took a while for the public context of what I was doing to sink in. I think that's true for most young professors. Starting out, we see universities, public or private, simply as settings for the work we want to do: teaching, scholarship, research.

You, as alumni, may still have that wonderfully pure view of the University of Washington. The UW is simply a given, you may feel, a permanent fixture of the Northwest, here for you, your children, your grandchildren--a timeless place where high-level teaching and learning are undisturbed by "real world" concerns.

But the university I see out my office window is not that kind of place, nor has it ever been. The swirl of people (and umbrellas) I see on "Red Square," going about the daily business of a major research university, is there only because a great public purpose has been expressed through political decisions. That is both the glory and the vulnerability of an institution like the UW. Can public support be sustained? Will the workings of the political system give us the resources we need to do our job well? These are the questions I have learned to worry about as I've come to understand the political dimension of public education in this country.

You should worry about these questions, too. Most of you, I believe, came here not only because the price was right but also because the quality was high. You're proud of the UW and you believe in what it represents: first-class education-and opportunities-for Washingtonians even of modest means. That combination of access and quality is becoming harder and harder to sustain. It is not at all a given that the UW you knew will be here for future generations.

Last year, recognizing the challenges and the need for a new, broad mandate, Gov. Gary Locke convened the 2020 Commission on the Future of Post-Secondary Education. This group of business, civic, and educational leaders was asked to look hard at the issues surrounding public higher education and to make recommendations for public policy in time for this year's legislative budget session.

The commission's report, issued in November, lays out an ambitious and far-sighted agenda. As expected, it talks about the urgent issues of growth, as the state's student population swells and as the demands of a knowledge-based economy dictate some post-secondary education for almost everyone. But the report talks just as forcefully about sustaining and enhancing quality. And it is clear-eyed about the bottom line: to build the higher-education system Washington needs for the next century, the state will have to invest more of its resources there.

What might that mean for the UW? Well, a key recommendation of the report is that the state maintain, for every institution, per-student funding to match the average of that institution's national peers. In the current academic year, state funding (appropriations plus tuition) for each full-time UW student is about $15,600. The average figure for our peers (schools like UCLA and Michigan) is about $18,000. If our funding matched the average, the UW's current annual budget would be $80 million larger than it is.

With those dollars, we could have solved our most pressing problem: faculty salaries. UW salaries, on average, are about 14 percent behind salaries at schools with which we compete for faculty. Those of you who run businesses know that you can't attract and hold the best people if you can't pay market rates. Since the quality of everything we do at the UW depends fundamentally on the quality of our faculty, raising faculty salaries is our highest budgetary priority. It is the only way we can remain far above average academically.

Which brings me to the current legislative session in Olympia. As I write in January, I can't foresee exactly what the budget-writing process may look like by March when you read this column. But I can tell you that the UW's budget request for the next biennium reflects our real and urgent need to sustain educational quality. And I can also tell you that state resources are tight and that competition among interests will be fierce.

We need your help. You are the public in public higher education. Every phone call or letter from a UW alumnus tells your legislator that people care about this University. If you want to be armed with up-to-the-minute information about our issues, contact our government relations office (see box). But the simplest message of support for the UW, drawn from your own experience here, will count for a lot. At this moment, it's the most important thing you can do to ensure that the kind of UW you knew will indeed be here for future generations.

Richard L. McCormick

For help in reaching legislators or for background on UW legislative requests:
phone: (206) 543-7604

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