On Monday, Washington State University faculty will chuck syllabi and power-point handouts to two-dozen brainy, mechanical-engineering students, signaling a sea change in Northwest higher-education. The Cougars are off the Palouse and within Wi-Fi distance of Port Gardner Bay.
During the 2011 legislative session, state lawmakers OK'd the WSU startup, with the university eventually seizing the reins of Everett Community College's University Center in 2014. The center already houses degree-completion programs from eight colleges, serving up 25 degree options. Rep. Hans Dunshee and state Sens. Nick Harper and Mary Margaret Haugen shepherded the enabling legislation with a long-lens' m.o. to plant something that wouldn't require extra tending (a seedling for now, an adult tree in another decade or more.)
The region's higher-ed narrative is a wistful tale of unrequited love. We first expressed interest in the late 1960s, hoping to lure what was to become Evergreen State University to Everett's log-congested shores. We were vanquished by a hipper, better-connected state capital in Olympia. When the University of Washington branched out to Tacoma, we begged to be shown an equal share of love. Alas, Bothell, the "For a day or for a Lifetime" town, scored more than a day in the early 1990s, as Everett was again shouldered to the curb.
The (hopefully) final middle-age heartbreak came a few pre-recession years ago, when three sites in Snohomish County (Everett, Marysville and Lake Stevens) boxed it out as a taciturn UW gawked and decided none was deep-pocketed or sophisticated enough to merit a Husky marriage.
Enter Elson Floyd, the president of Washington State University, who floated a proposal that Everett couldn't refuse. Start with a program in mechanical engineering, allow WSU to captain the University Center, and then open the door to other regionally relevant degrees. Clear alignment between WSU's STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum and local employers such as Boeing and Fluke could also extend to the university's program in hotel management and the operations of the Tulalip Resort Casino.
For now, the WSU program is like a house built on spec, sitting at a sweet address but not revealing its interior. The 27 students who begin classes on Monday are step one. They also underscore the currency and demand-based mission of a vibrant community-college system, with half of enrollees transferring in from Everett Community College.
The next step revolves around political leaders who played a meaningful role in the program's inception (Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and Rep. Hans Dunshee, for example) pulling in community members from around the region to identify higher-ed needs of not only Snohomish, but Island and Skagit counties as well. Jettison the usual suspects and tap the hoi polloi -- the school teachers, the construction workers, the stay-at-home parents. The earlier heartbreak of the UW illuminated regional divisions that should be mended. The remedy requires neck-extending political leadership, a willingness to adapt, and a capacity to strategize over the long-term.
The quiet revolution begins, one mechanical engineer at a time. To bastardize Benjamin Franklin, we have a university, if we can keep it.
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