Remarks Before the State Senate Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee
President Bruce Shepard’s Prepared Remarks
October 2, 2009
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. And thank you for your continuing dedication to keeping Washington strong. That is Western’s paramount purpose as well. Continuing our commitment and our capability to build ever brighter futures for Washington is the theme for my brief remarks this morning.
Important, of course, is understanding and being publicly accountable – we, you too – for last spring’s difficult budget decisions and their equally difficult implementation. Hence this important hearing. Mr. Yowell did a fine job of describing the budget cuts. I will shift the focus a bit: from what has transpired to what now threatens.
It is a biennial budget that that is our subject this morning and that biennium remains to unfold. Many impacts are yet to be felt and feedback loops are long in higher education: Only over years will we know the full impact that the cuts we have made most certainly will have on our students’ time to degree. And, how about the effects of the cuts upon the quality of your public universities: Quality is built or diminishes over several biennia as we are able or unable to attract faculty and staff worthy of Washington’s commitment to be a Global Challenge state.
Still, it is that future that now occupies our best thinking at Western, and there are stark realities we – you as public leaders, we as public servants – must now face.
First, the context:
- As you know, the cuts to public universities in this state were greater than those seen in most any other state in the nation.
- Western’s state general fund budget for the current biennium was cut by 29%.
- You had the vision and the courage – and we sincerely thank you for that – to buy down the impacts from disastrous to dire through serious tuition increases. But, the net effect: overnight, we saw the percentage of state support for our operating budget drop from 60% to 42%.
- When it comes to where we cut, we think not in Tim’s categories but much like the general public: there is the core teaching function and then there is everything else. That “everything else” is, of course, composed entirely of critical academic and student support programs, the necessary responsibilities of running and maintaining a city of some size, and the essential business functions necessary to assure efficient, ethical, and effective performance. We first protected classroom instruction even though that is where most of the dollars are: the “everything else” portion of our budget was cut between 7% and 10% depending upon the area; academic program cuts averaged 5%.
Even before these recent budget cuts, Western and Washington’s other universities were the most efficient in the nation, producing high quality degrees for some of the lowest per student and per degree funding rates in the country.
So, serious cuts had to be made at universities that, when it comes to efficiency and economy, are, already, best of class. Yet, when it comes to higher education and Washington’s future, there is another national statistic that must also be considered. It is the percentage of our eligible population receiving the baccalaureate education so important in a knowledge-based economy,. Washington is “worst of class” ….48th out of 50!
Universities cannot be turned off and then on again like a water faucet. Productive capacity is built over decades. So, how did we pursue our commitment to maintain the enrollment capacity that, over the future, Washington actually needs to not simply maintain but, in reality, substantially grow? Basically, by stretching already fully committed and highly efficient colleagues; by using some temporizing approaches; and by taking substantial risks.
When it comes to stretching, I am so proud of our tremendous faculty and staff; they have done a heroic job of making sure that the dramatic funding cuts will have as little immediate effect as possible on our students. One brief example:
Our faculty union approached us and asked that a merit pay increment long ago agreed to (back before the recession) be delayed for 2 years so that the funds could be used to support instruction. Because of their sacrifice, about 100 sections that otherwise would have been cut, are open today and serving our students. This, of course, helpful as it is, is only a temporary measure.
And, I worry most about the risks we are taking. Inevitably in a university already so efficient, we are taking risks with our students’ futures. Consider the risk of cutting, as we did, class offerings by between 10% and 15%.
We did maintain total seat capacity while eliminating all those classes. So, in theory, seats are there for the number of students we admitted. But, students do not take classes in theory: they need to take particular subjects, in particular sequences, at particular times, in particular majors, and to meet particular requirements. Over the next few years, we will see many of our students take longer to get their degrees because of these now restricted choices. Further compounding the problem, they will have to navigate college and its immediate aftermath with fewer and fewer advising and career counseling services. Students from families who have not gone to college before will be differentially affected as they find it harder to get the support they need to be successful. We put further at risk the already at risk.
These are the things we will be able to measure with greater accuracy in the coming years. But the most devastating effects will be harder to precisely measure. The truly outstanding thing about Washington’s universities is not just that we spend less than almost all other states to produce our baccalaureate degrees, but that we produce the highest quality degrees at such low cost. If the public’s investment in their universities continues to decline, quality will diminish. The education may cost the state less and less but it also will be worth much less: to students, to graduates, and to those enterprises whose competitive edge comes from hiring the very best prepared.
Western Washington University is the premier public comprehensive university in the Northwest – for 12 years in a row, Western has ranked #1.
Western has nearly 10,000 admissions applicants competing for 2,700 openings.
Western is known for creating and supporting high quality learning experiences for our students. That’s why the demand for access to Western is so high.
Those high quality learning experiences are based upon close working relationships between our faculty and students. It is a culture of time-intensive, one-on-one engagement and innovation that defines our reputation for educational excellence.
As a consequence, we are well known for preparing your children, the State’s children, to be highly competitive for the well-paying jobs of the new economy, to be the next generation of business leaders, scientists, medical professionals and teachers. Industry, graduate schools and our K-12 schools aggressively pursue our graduates because of their special preparation.
ALL OF THIS IS AT RISK
As class sizes grow and academic departments cut more and more corners to make ends meet—
As tenure track faculty are replaced by part time teachers—
As our best faculty leave for states that better support their universities—
As our students get less and less time with their professors and less and less advising and counseling—
As their financial aid checks don’t get processed on time—
As our computers and our labs and equipment grow older and older without refurbishment and replacement—
And, as we cancel our new faculty orientation because there are no new faculty to orient—
We came perilously close to doing just that this fall. Top faculty are the single most important component of providing quality education and learning for our students. Normally, we would hire about 30 faculty each year. Because of budget reductions, we hired only 3 new tenure-track faculty for the year ahead. As the baby boom retires, competition for top talent will be world-wide.
Replacing only three tenure track faculty at a university serving 14,400 students. Imagine what happens if we go even one more biennium so immobilized. The risks we are now taking become grim realities affecting quality for many, many years ahead.
These are effects that the numbers we have seen here today cannot fully capture. We can tell you how many classes we’ve cancelled, how many students we’ve added to classes, how many positions we haven’t filled, but the full effect of this will not be clear until our graduates enter the work force. Washington’s employers will be the final judges of the education funding choices we and you are making now.
If we will fail to prepare Washington students with the knowledge and critical thinking skills to seize the many opportunities in our growing, knowledge-based economy, that economy will be forced even more than it is now to import college graduates from other states. Is this really the future we want to create for our kids: low-paying jobs working for those we import? We are heading down that road and the numbers DO show that.
I strongly believe that we are at a critical juncture. We have stretched, temporized, and taken substantial risks. We have done everything we can think of – every play in the book – to postpone an ugly day of reckoning. But, that day looms. What path will we now choose for Washington and our shared futures?
I am happy to respond to any questions.