Washington’s Now and Future Premier Comprehensive University

Thoughts for a Discussion


“Transformation” is a grossly over-used and probably clichéd word. Yet, I can find no more appropriate term in the context of thinking about the future of Western Washington University. Ours is the premier public comprehensive university in the Pacific Northwest. Our aspirations are to be the best university of our type in the nation. That cannot happen simply by doing more of what has proven to be successful. We will need to leave known and familiar territory to relentlessly seek the front of the pack. To experiment, to create, to innovate, to occasionally fail. To transform.

Now, imagine that becoming “best of class” continues to be our aspiration during a period in which, overnight, state support dropped from 60% to 43% of the operating budget. There is transformational pressure even if we did not have the additional aspirations.

How are we to respond to the rapidly diminishing support for public higher education? Meaningful answers to questions like that must come from us all, not from any single individual. Or, just from the university. So, I have written what follows to stimulate your best thinking, hoping you will help us find meaningful answers.

Teaching to Learning

One of the most profound transformations is, perhaps, also one of the most simple. Universities are not about teaching, they are about learning. In the course of my career, I have witnessed the subtle change in vocabulary that masks a dramatic shift in purpose as faculty discuss curricula in department meetings, as faculty senates discuss criteria for promotion, tenure, and merit, and as we decide how best to measure our performance so that we may continually improve it. Decades ago, we talked teaching; today, we habitually focus upon learning.

Learning is Created, Not Transmitted

Learning is not about transmitting; it is about constructing. Faculty do not fill empty vessels with their imparted wisdom. Rather, through our teaching we create the needs, the pressures, the experiences, the provocations, the models, the information for students to construct meanings within their own contexts.

And, supporting this extraordinary shift, we also realize that students differ remarkably in the approaches that effect genuine understandings. These are the widely differing “learning styles” so clear, today, to any modern and thinking professor. Together, these combine to form yet another shift: students become further enabled to and responsible for their education in what we call “student mastery learning.” The role of the student in the education process has changed from passive recipient to engaged collaborator.

Delivery Technologies

As to the new technologies, they do allow us to reach audiences traditionally not well served by higher education, reaching people where they are in their lives, in their careers, in the state, around the world.

For decades, the idea has persisted that these new technologies can significantly lower costs of higher education. The basic fact is that we do not teach history or biology or philosophy, we teach people. Higher education is not a mechanical transfer of information; it is a fire inspirationally ignited through human interaction. People teach people. Even over the Internet. As far as I can glimpse into the future, technologies will greatly extend the effectiveness by which mentors and learners work together, but the basic dependence on highly talented faculty will remain. And, hence, our basic cost structure persists.

Accountability, Assessment, and Transparency

Today, there is a well-established spirit of accountability and transparency on university campuses across the country. These changes now have firm, decades-long roots although not everybody has caught on.

At Western, our budget process was entirely open, well documented in detail on the web. Relying upon all sorts of means for bottom-up involvement, criteria were publicly posted, all proposals for reductions publicly posted on the web, and budget presentations from each budget unit were podcast in real time and available thereafter from the web. All with forums attached for open discussion and debate. Every penny we have to budget was available for all to see. In part because of this transparency, folks at Western never felt in the dark about the budget, or budget cuts, and were real participants as Western was forced to make very difficult budget choices.

We have the usual student course reaction surveys – every class, every term – and routine alumni surveys. We supplement these with nationally normed surveys of student engagement, campus climate, and student experiences with all parts of the university. We use “360 reviews” of administrators including surveys on performance. We systematically measure the effectiveness of our general education program and all other major components of the curriculum.

The Student Body

Just as our country is changing, demographically, so too are the students on our campuses. At Western, the ethnic and racial composition of the student body closely match that of the state. And, as with the state, we are becoming increasingly diverse. To use the most recent data, that for spring quarter, 2009, over 18% of our students identified themselves as African American, Hispanic Latino, Asian, or Native American. Last year, it was 16.8%, a significant one-year jump with increases in all four categories.

A diverse faculty and staff are one important means of assuring a diverse student body and, here, there is also progress to report. The numbers of faculty members of color has gone from 61 to 74 in four years – an increase of about 16%. The number of professional staff of color at Western has increased by a third in the last few years.

There is another demographic change evident on our campuses: significant for higher education and, I believe, a change that portends major and continuing societal transformation. This is the success of women in higher education. At Western, our student body is 54.5 percent female. As truly transformative legislation like Title IX slightly cracked the door open, women have exploded into the halls of higher education . It is an important success story, one built on generations of struggle and with chapters remaining to be completed in areas like engineering, mathematics, and certain sciences.


Throughout American higher education, those comfortable campuses where we define what it is we will do when we want to do it are long gone. There are still those who think we can control and divide up the turf; sometimes they hold public office. But, even in states with strong, single system approaches to higher education, access to higher education is being provided through a highly competitive marketplace.

There is nothing wrong with this, so long as we make sure that our competitive instincts remain focused by a critical consideration: making the most effective use possible of the resources the public and, increasingly, our students provide. Certainly, we value the forces of the marketplace in other spheres as a reasonable way to match efficient allocation of scarce resources with consumers who have the fiscal means to effect their demands.

On our campuses, we now know that real business plans have two components. We have always been good at thinking through great good things to do and then defining what it will take to do them, sending plans for support to Olympia. A complete plan on any campus today also includes a “where I will get the resources” component, all the more important as we understand Olympia is unlikely to be the place to find further support.


Universities have become more and more efficient. How can that be when you see tuition rising? We must not confuse “price” and “cost.” Tuition is the price people have been paying. Why has tuition been rising even as costs have remained steady? It is because states have been steadily reducing the share of the costs that they would cover. Over the last 15 years, instructional costs at Western have risen an average of 1% annually above the CPI (Consumer Price Index). We are a talent-based enterprise; the costs of talent always rise faster than do the prices of goods, and so this alignment with the CPI is really remarkable. Costs have been kept largely flat even as, over the same period, much more has been provided: in the technology and equipment students find in classrooms, science labs, graphic arts studios, and computer labs; in the wireless high tech environment in which they learn; and in the expanding academic and student support services now available.

What about the “Public” in Public Universities?


I have saved, for last, what is becoming the greatest transformational force in public higher education. In state after state, taxpayer support for the costs of instruction has dropped below 50%. This is a trend begun decades before as state support for higher education around the country slowly eroded from historic commitments to cover most (typically 2/3rd’s or more) of the cost of educating students.

In Washington and at Western, support declined over the decades from above 70% of the cost of instruction to, for the fiscal year just concluded, exactly 60%. Next year, what had been 60% becomes 43%. Overnight, we, the taxpayers, have become minority stakeholders in supporting the costs of educating those at Western.

Frankly, I was blind-sided by the hits targeting higher education during the last legislative session.Washington’s support for higher education is becoming more typical of what is found in some other states. So, why the surprise? Because Washington has aggressively sought not to be like those other states in their slide toward mediocrity. We have seen ourselves as not merely among but, rather, a leader among the global challenge states. We are now heading toward residence in the neighborhoods of less ambitious states.

The consequences are very serious: for what Washington’s universities are now able to provide and for what our students and their families have to pay. But, I am more interested in trying to understand what this transformation in ownership portends. For Western. For Western’s service to Washington.

The Political Context

Washington was a state that got it: investing in higher education provided brighter futures – economic, social, cultural. Sure, higher ed got cut in tough times. But, in better times, the state stretched to reinvest.

I attributed much of this to the vision of the private sector leaders in Washington. College graduates are the backbone of an increasingly sophisticated work force. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate in May was 9.4%. For people with at least a bachelor’s degree, the unemployment rate was 4.8 percent, significantly better that the 10 percent unemployment rate for people with only a high school diploma and 7.7% percent rate for those with some college, including associate degrees.

Over the long term, Washington flourished. Last summer, I spent time listening across the state. I heard what I expected, particularly from the private sector: repeatedly, I heard, “we fought for strong universities and now we must fight to keep our investment.”

Then the Legislature convened and, in the halls of our Capitol, I frequently heard something else. There are many who do get the link between investing in higher education and brighter futures. They would say, “Yes, I know that those advocates making the arguments in the private sector are right.” They would add, though, “You have to understand that those who elect me do not see the connection.”

There are many friends of higher education. There were also a few who saw us as arrogant and elitist, particularly in comparison to the much more favorably seen community and technical colleges. Sometimes, the pent up frustration if not vindictiveness found expression in phrases like “the universities have to bleed.”

Better Making the Case

Elitist? What does that mean? Some assert arrogance and high-handedness in the approach taken by universities. I have not seen such but perception is reality, and we must go to even further lengths to avoid such impressions.

Still others assert that we serve only the families of the better off. This is a most damaging argument, were it true and given our state’s strong populist bent. The data are clear. Higher education transforms not individuals, but families. And, states.

A nation’s wealth is rooted, most fundamentally, in the fully developed talents of its people. We have to continue to make that argument. We also need to learn from others who, judging from my conversations, have more effectively made the case: the community colleges and technical colleges. Washington is fortunate to have strong community colleges, technical colleges, and universities with distinct and complementary missions. All are important components of Washington’s answers to critical needs. But, just how elitist is it to say those from the growing populations where parents have not gone to college really are best suited to the opportunities provided by community and technical colleges?

Making the Case Better

We cannot stop there, though. We have been trying to make the case for decades. We also need to think about how to make the case itself better, stronger.

As legislators reported and as surveys confirm, the broad public does see us, generally, with warm, fuzzy positives. But, they do not see how what we do affects their lives. Compare a cut to higher education with a cut to a public assistance program or to K-12. Private sector leaders I regularly talk with do understand that higher education investments are the only way the state, longer term, will be able to have the tax revenues necessary to support its admirable commitments to social justice and K-12 education.

Average voters see the effects of cuts to K-12 or to public assistance programs in their homes and neighborhoods every day. They see no hurt to them, though, if higher education, particularly 4- year higher education, is cut. We know quality diminishes; we know tuition goes up; we know, when forced to shrink, fewer students are able to attend; we know that, when the only programs we can add or expand are those that recover costs in the marketplace, then the pressing and particular needs of those without higher incomes do not register on our necessarily and increasingly entrepreneurial radar screens. So what? They see no consequences for their jobs, the vitality of their communities, and, most disturbingly, the futures of their children.

There is so much we are already doing to directly affect the lives of all Washingtonians. We must do an ever better job of explaining these. But, we will also look for ways to do more. Some important steps are underway:

The Publicly Purposed University

This I am more certain of: the state’s fiscal situation is not going to turn around any time soon. Even if the economy picks up, our state fiscal picture remains bleak for the next biennium. Perhaps beyond. The one-time federal stimulus dollars that bought the impacts down from disaster to dire will all be gone; expectations are that Constitutionally protected formulaic expenditure requirements will dramatically grow. Higher education is a part of that roughly 50% of the budget not Constitutionally protected so the revenue shortfalls that result from all these factors are doubled and must be allocated among many critical and important state needs.

As public support has dropped below 50%, around the country, university presidents are fond of pointing out that their institutions have shifted from being “public” to being “publicly-assisted.” That phrase “publicly assisted” has long made me uneasy. We are defined not by where the money comes from but by where we put our efforts: our mission. We are a proudly public institution because of values we hold and a mission to which we are dedicated. And, I don’t think that changes with shifts in where the dollars come from.

Drawing from an excellent study of higher education financing done by Lyall and Sell, we are transforming, like it or not, to become not “publicly assisted,” but, rather, “publicly purposed.”1 It is the purposes we pursue that define us as public.

What does it mean to become a “publicly purposed” university? The answer is unclear. But, the very ambiguity is, itself, an advantage. We have the opportunity to define it for ourselves. Or, as is now beginning, have it increasingly defined for us. As I look ahead, I glimpse some features, opportunities, and challenges for the publicly purposed university. These I will quickly present. Whatever we are to become, it is your vision and your doing that will take us there.

Transformations Continue

Higher education is already amidst major, sometimes decades-long transformations. The publicly purposed university must do a much better job of making citizens, legislators, and others fully aware that today’s universities are very different from those they remember.

Marketing and Branding

In the competitive world of today and, certainly, tomorrow, we must clearly communicate who we are and what we offer. This requires first that we understand and agree upon who we are and where we intend to go. Only then we can hope to more effectively communicate Western’s distinctiveness. The results will, if done well, inform our decisions about just what kind of “publicly purposed” university we would chose to be.


One brand component currently distinguishes us. We call it engaged excellence, the special approach to educating students that establishes us a premier institution. Such commitment to top quality will continue to be central. Here, we must adhere to demonstrable excellence as a distinguishing criterion.

Demonstrable Results

As we compete for support – from the state, from students and their families, from foundations and donors – assertions of academic rigor and relevance, alone, no longer suffice. Excellence has many dimensions; we must be clear about those that are a priority for us. And, we must document accomplishments on the dimensions we select as most important to our concept of Western as a leading and publicly purposed university.


The publicly purposed university must be ever more entrepreneurial. Such efforts, though, are no longer side shows or ways to partially mitigate the consequences of shrinking budgets. Universities are rich sources of great ideas to meet important needs. Being entrepreneurial means going beyond having answers and figuring costs to also figuring out where the dollars are to come from. And, as risks are involved, we must begin with exits in mind, something higher education has not always been good at.


I believe that a culture of relentless questioning and innovation will distinguish those publicly purposed universities that emerge as national leaders. Yes, in our classrooms, labs, and studios, we encourage our students to innovate and to take risks. Our faculty do the same in their scholarship and creative commitments. But, as with any large and complex organization, the status quo can impose blinders, limiting our field of vision.

Publicly Engaged

It may not seem necessary to point out that the publicly purposed university must be publicly engaged. But, think about this question: “How are these public purposes to be chosen?” I think the simplest answer is also the best: By the public. And, for many of us in higher education, that insight may be most transforming. And, perhaps, most alarming. Yes, we have always been accountable to the public’s elected representatives, although, as funding diminishes, so too may the rationale for as strong a connection. As a publicly purposed university, it becomes all the more important for us to understand the publics and their purposes for us.

Window on the Future

In being publicly purposed it is important that we not abdicate our roles as forward-looking institutions. Success as a university worthy of the name means knowing what will be needed by those it is our mission to serve – students, the private and public sectors, posterity – before those we exist to serve may fully realize their needs. That is an insight well-known to any successful, private-sector entrepreneurial enterprise. That leadership responsibility remains an essential component for the publicly purposed university providing truly higher education that serves students and the state over the longer run.


There are many more aspects of the coming publicly purposed university. Please understand, though, that I am not advocating what should happen. I am describing what is happening.

Happening, yes. And we have the responsibility to drive the changes in positive directions. We must exercise our leadership responsibility for it would be pointless to try only to maintain the status quo.

I will conclude making this point: it is the interdependence of the three questions I posed about better making the case, making the case itself even better, and if not public, then what are we? By thoughtfully evolving – by becoming a national leader as a publicly purposed university – we do work towards our stated vision of being the best public comprehensive in the nation. But, we also make the case clearer and stronger for further state investment. While not in our immediate future, in the long run we – more importantly, Washington – could have it both ways: even more publicly purposed and, thereby, once again appropriately publicly funded. This is the outcome we should work for and which I believe the citizens of Washington and the leaders they elect must appreciate and embrace.

1 Katharine C. Lyall and Kathleen R. Sell. The True Genius of America at Risk: Are We Losing our Public Universities to de Facto Privatization? Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Publishing Group, Ace/Praeger Series on Higher Education, 2005.

Page Updated 11.27.2013