Public Higher Education Challenges for the State of Washington
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Prepared Remarks of WWU President Bruce Shepard to the Munro Institute for Civic Education
I am delighted to be here this afternoon joined by this distinguished panel and before this audience of caring citizens committed to brighter futures for Washington.
I have to say that I almost did not make it. Several weeks ago, I got, sort of like death and taxes, that unavoidable jury summons. For this week and next. I worried about the conflict with the Munro Seminar but, looking at the months ahead, could find no two weeks with fewer critical conflicts. And, I happen to believe it our duty as citizens to serve on juries. No matter how busy. Indeed, perhaps the busiest have an obligation to set the model for the requirements that accompany the many blessings of citizenship.
So, I apologize to the organizers for keeping my participation a matter of hanging fire. Was not until 6:00 p.m. last night that I learned I would not be needed at the Court House today.
I was thankful, Whatcom County being relatively civil and law abiding, that I was then able to be here with you this afternoon. Whether you are equally grateful will need to await the conclusion of my remarks.
Now, our topic has to do with Political Reporting: A Challenging Landscape. I will leave it to our esteemed panel to take on what they know best: the political reporting. I will address the challenging landscape and the part of that I know best: the challenges facing public higher education, particularly baccalaureate-level education.
There is great expertise on our panel. There is considerable wisdom throughout the room. I look forward to thoughtful discussion and exchange. It is through the talking together and not in the “talking at” that deeper understandings are achieved.
What is the Current Public Higher Education Landscape in Washington?
First what should be obvious but may not be for those have not recently lived outside Washington, looking in: Washington’s six public baccalaureate institutions are nationally much-admired and extraordinarily successful state resources. And, perhaps THE most important tool that state policy makers have available to build brighter futures for our state.
Do consider these features:
- There is remarkable differentiation.
Think about how fundamentally different the UW and WSU are. Eastern fills a critical access role and is emerging as a nationally recognized Hispanic-serving institution. Central, so important to its immediate region, has entrepreneurially extended very important educational access to the Western part of the state. Evergreen thrives with its highly regarded and nationally recognized distinctive approach. And, Western is a selective, destination university known for premier undergraduate education.
- We are highly productive.
Graduation rates for our six public four year institutions, taken together, are right at the top of national comparisons.
- We are highly efficient.
Our six publics, together, rank second in the nation in lowest cost per degree.
- We are constantly changing in response to emerging needs.
Sometimes, when I walk the halls of the Capitol, the universities I hear being described, and some of the “problems” with them people want to address seem to be from decades ago. It’s a subject for another keynote but higher education, in at least a dozen ways I could develop, has fundamentally transformed over the last twenty years. We are not your parents’ universities. We continue to constantly change in response to the state’s needs.
- We are recognized for our quality.
While I will spare you the various national rankings, here I think we all know that Washington’s public baccalaureate institutions rank right up there with some of the best in the country.
All of this in a state where state support per student – and tuition – are way below national averages.
How can that be?
One absolutely key factor is this: we are six independent universities. We must not lose sight of this strength for it has been critical to our capacity to weather the severe fiscal storms of recent years.
It is far too easy to think that mission differentiation and efficiency emerge through centralization. Having worked in the University of California System, the Oregon University System, and the University of Wisconsin System, I am here to tell you such thinking is fundamentally mistaken.
Systems add not just more costly bureaucracy, to far too great a degree, they also, almost instinctively, require everybody to doing things the same way regardless of the particular circumstances of individual institutions. In these rapidly changing times, that is anathema to our need to adapt to our unique institutional circumstances – strengths, challenges, threats, and opportunities
In Washington, each institution is forced to understand its unique situation, specific mission, and then zero in on them. And we are forced to do so as efficiently as possible, for there is no “System” insulating us from the fiscal and other consequences of the choices we make.
These really are the same forces that, in other contexts (“the marketplace”), we laud as the way to assure that customers’ needs are fully and efficiently met.
What about Western in Particular?
Now, within the context of their missions, all six public baccalaureates really are exceptional; there is no pecking order or hierarchy. I will turn to the specific campus I know best, Western. But, when it comes to the bragging I will be doing – and the challenges I will conclude with – any of my colleague presidents would be able to speak with equal pride. And, with equal concern.
Western is known for the quality of its undergraduate offerings. I tell students they could pick their undergraduate major by throwing a dart at our catalog and end up with one of the strongest, likely the strongest, major available anywhere in the state. With 15,000 students, we offer a variety of curricula, a caliber of faculty and staff, and a quality of facilities not matched at smaller institutions, including prestigious privates.
The evidence abounds and not just in the numerous top-of-the-heap national rankings. Quality attracts, and we have over 13,000 applicants for the 3,500 slots that will be available next fall. Employers line up to hire our graduates. In placement at the exceptional University of Washington Medical School, our graduates are accepted at rates twice that of other prestigious Washington universities.
There are also challenges. As state support dropped from 60% to 30%, we asked: what kind of university are we to become? The alternatives – and we seriously explored each – were bleak: become elite serving, become just another mediocre regional, or become a much smaller, exclusively liberal arts college.
But, we did not rely upon the assumption that Western knows best what Washington requires most from us. First, we asserted that, as the public became a minority stakeholder in our operating budget, we would not be defined by where the money came from. We remained proudly publicly purposed.
And, what were those public purposes? We held a hundred conversations around the state – and beyond: parents, students, alums, legislators, business leaders, labor leaders, leaders of the communities of color that enrich our state, local friends and their neighbors.
We heard an enormous amount of great, immediate, and practical value. We also heard: “It is not about you, it is about the differences you make.”
We took our former strategic plan and vision, which was all about us, and threw it out. Our new plan fits on one page and can be summarized in one sentence: “to apply our considerable strengths to help meet the critical needs of the State of Washington.”
That commitment is what has relentlessly guided us and the difficult decisions we have had to make over recent years. These I outlined in my address to last year’s Munro Institute and will not repeat here.
In that prior talk, I went on to point out how the decisions to protect our strengths and apply them to the State’s needs were seriously at risk. They were dangling by a very thin thread. Further cuts would have decades-long consequences for what people told us they wanted Western to deliver.
When, last fall, we saw the supplemental cuts being proposed by the Governor – another $7 million for Western, I feared that thread was about to be cut. But, I had underestimated the many, many who got heavily engaged: parents, alumni, unions, students, faculty, staff, private sector leaders, donors, Trustees, the media. And, we saw real leadership effectively emerge in Olympia.
Critical, of course, was the “no additional cuts to higher education” supplemental budget. But, that was not the whole story. The “Tuition Flexibility” authority granted by the legislature during the previous biennial session included flexibility to promote greater efficiencies throughout our operations. Those components were vetoed but, in the most recent session, were again passed and have become law. The creation of a successor to the Higher Education Coordinating Board could have gone any number of directions but, in the end, what emerged requires meaningful accountability – something we insist upon as proudly public – without going the route of homogenizing centralization or adding inefficient additional bureaucratic layers.
Just the Beginning: The Challenges Ahead
This is a very promising development. How sustainable is it? That I do not know. I know, though, that even if it is for real, it still is only a beginning. It must be not just sustained but further expanded and empowered, for there are enormous challenges ahead.
I will speak to those involving public baccalaureate education. First, though, I must point out an even more encompassing challenge: the state’s fiscal structure. It is broken. It is designed for an economy that no longer exists. We largely tax goods in an economy that increasingly consists of services.
Washington does have a revenue problem and not a spending problem. As you know, state expenditures per capita have been dropping for a decade. But, even as Washington’s economy has puttered along better than in most states, we were forced to slash budgets more deeply than most states. And, looking forward, our economy could vigorously rebound but the state’s revenues would not begin to keep pace.
So, while we will certainly join in efforts to help our State find solutions, I personally am not optimistic about there being successes that help public higher education. I do know it would be foolish to bet the future of Western or public baccalaureate education on there being solutions to the broken fiscal structure. It will, as often is the case in life, come once again down to priorities: for Washington. For Western and our commitment to serve Washington.
So, what are the challenges ahead? I will touch on four:
- First, and foremost in my mind, is the need to expand access to public baccalaureate education.
Earlier, I noted that Washington provides high quality, productive and efficient baccalaureate education. But, it does not provide very much of it. We rank 48th out of 50 states in the size of our pipeline to public baccalaureate education. In most of the rest of the developed and developing world, the coming generation is being better educated than are their parents. The outlier is the United States. The generation to come will be less well educated. And, in the trailing-the-pack United States, where is the State of Washington? 48th out of 50. That, to me, is by far the biggest challenge our state faces is we are to secure brighter futures for all.
And what is Western doing? We have trailblazing efforts in place, now being transported to other parts of the state, that will assure the pipeline of young people motivated and prepared to succeed in college. But, unless the state steps up to provide the capacity, a train wreck is guaranteed.
- There is the challenge to avoid the allure of simplistic solutions.
I hear two oversimplifications when walking the halls in Olympia. Ubiquitous, is the notion of online education as the panacea. This is a topic I know very well, having served at a university where a large portion of our students never stepped foot on campus. I could go into great detail. But, I will say only this: learning is a relationship in which people teach people, even over the Internet. Over 80% of our operational costs are personnel costs. So long as we maintain the quality of education over the Internet, our operating costs do not change.
That having been said, at Western, we are aggressively extending education to audiences traditionally not well served by American higher education. Why? Because our mission is to apply our strengths to the State’s needs. We are not, though, saving any money in so doing.
The second simplistic solution has to do with turning two-year institutions into four year institutions. Those proposing to do so say they can make it work, collecting tuition at the level of the baccalaureates. But, only, of course, if they continue to teach relying, as they currently do, upon faculty consisting 80% of adjuncts. Here, you get what you pay for.
At Western, we have taken a very different approach. Through the Northwest Higher Education Coalition, we and eight two-year partners have combined forces to deliver more efficient and more effective education throughout the region.
- Rising tuition challenges access.
If higher education is, as it most certainly is, a means to a higher quality life, then most of us would adhere to the principle that access to higher education should be independent of the circumstances of one’s birth. But, is low tuition the best way to secure that value?
It is important to first understand that simply keeping tuition low—and again, Washington’s tuitions remain below national averages—keeps tuition low for the 70% to 80% of our students who come from families in the upper three income quintiles.
A much more efficient way to address the social justice objective is to target financial aid to those in greatest need. Here, Washington needs to pat itself on the back, for our State Need Grand is well above the national average and has been protected even through the recent tough times.
And, consider this thought experiment. Suppose we took tuition at Western down to zero. If quality were to be kept the same, the state appropriation would have to be increased, of course. By how much? By 260%.
And, notice: by that close to tripling of state investment in higher education, not one more high demand major has been expanded, not one more class offered, not one more seat in a class has been added. That paramount challenge – building baccalaureate capacity – remains.
At Western, we are critically reexamining and restructuring all of our approaches to financial aid, of course. And, the fact remains that tuition alone cannot be depended upon, as it has over the past 4 years, to protect the state’s investment in its public universities.
- And, finally, we must address compensation issues.
I saved perhaps the toughest for last. We are known for the quality of our academic programs and the recipe is simple: attract and keep outstanding students; attract and keep outstanding faculty and staff. Washington has led the nation in its cuts to public baccalaureate education, and other states, on the rebound, are reinvesting. Four years ago, before the disproportionate cuts, our faculty salaries were way below the median of peers. Today, the competitive disadvantage we now face is enormous.
We are not shirking our responsibilities to deliver for Washington. We have just worked out, with our faculty partners, a contract that allows us to begin to make some progress with this disparity. This we are able to do because, two years ago, and with this critical need in mind, we did not try to limp by with band-aides: we made the painful rebasing decisions necessary so that we would be able to sustain quality.
That we are addressing this matter will be the subject of criticism. Western is in the lead here, because of the timing of our contract. And, I am already hearing criticism from some quarters in Olympia. But, I do trust that those who understand our obligation to maintain the quality of our universities – be they in the media or in the Capitol—will appreciate that Western, once again in the lead, deserves commendation and not criticism.
So, there is a quick overview of the landscape and several of the challenges therein. I look forward to learning from the observations of our panelists and our audience.