Office of External Affairs

October 24, 2019

From the VP- We are the University FOR Washington (and Alaska too!)

Randy Hodgins

Now that I have recovered slightly from our football team’s heartbreaking loss to the Ducks last weekend, I have had a chance to reflect on my recent trip to Anchorage. You might be surprised that the UW is sending staff to the 49th state, but our relationship with Alaska dates back more than a century. In 1909, Seattle hosted its first world’s fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (AYP) Exposition, on the UW campus.  The fair commemorated the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush and celebrated Seattle’s growing ties to Alaska, the Canadian Northwest and the Pacific Rim. The famous Olmstead Brothers designed the layout for the AYP Exposition which ultimately became the blueprint for the main UW campus.

Today, some of Alaska’s most productive freshwater ecosystems play host to research camps for the UW Alaska Salmon Program. Airlift Northwest, a lifesaving resource for many rural communities, was conceived after a tragic house fire in Sitka, Alaska and remains a critical life-line for Alaskans who need access to Harborview Medical Center. Even our live mascot, Dubs, is an Alaskan Malamute, another nod to our friends up North. But our most important and durable partnership with the state of Alaska is the UW School of Medicine’s WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) physician education program.

Created almost half a century ago, WWAMI broke the medical education mold. It allowed UW Medicine to cross state lines and provide physician training for all five states in partnership with local universities. WWAMI also challenged convention by providing opportunities for students to receive medical training in community-based settings. Most medical schools practice in urban environments, but WWAMI allows students to learn in both urban and rural locations. Better still, data shows WWAMI medical students return to practice medicine in their home state at a much higher percentage than the national average. Graduates also choose to practice within any WWAMI state at high percentages regardless of their home state. In short, the program works and is a wise budget investment for states with small populations that cannot justify building separate medical school infrastructure.

Even with evidence showing it adds value, this past legislative session in Alaska was particularly difficult for the WWAMI program and many other state-supported programs. The recently elected Governor made it his top priority to provide the maximum allowable Permanent Fund Dividend to all Alaska residents. To cover the full cost of those dividends, his initial budget proposal withdrew funding of WWAMI entirely. The proposal also reduced funding to several other important public programs including a 41% cut to the University of Alaska budget.

Thankfully, our partners and supporters in Alaska rallied. After two special legislative sessions, the WWAMI program was saved from the legislative chopping block.  But there will be another session next January and the Governor has not given up on his desire to increase permanent fund distribution. That’s why colleagues from UW Medicine and I visited Anchorage last week: to thank our supporters in the higher education, health care, business and foundation community for their efforts and to seek their counsel on how to better prepare for the 2020 legislative session.

Because of WWAMI, the UW School of Medicine has been identified by U.S. News & World Report as a top medical school for primary care education, family medicine and rural medicine training in the entire U.S. If we want to stay at the top, we need to foster a political environment where programs like WWAMI can be sustained and expanded. In the next few months, I will visit Idaho, Wyoming and Montana with my colleagues in Medicine to help strengthen relationships in those states as well.