Two college jobs, two different values for Washington state

  • Sat May 1st, 2010 11:49pm
  • News

By Jerry Cornfield, Herald Columnist

This is a tale of two jobs.

Both vacant.

Both influence the lives of thousands of college students.

Are both still relevant?

One, president of the University of Washington, opened this week with Mark Emmert’s announced departure.

Emmert arrived six years ago as one of the nation’s hottest talents in higher education and departed an even hotter one, though the report card of his legacy will show a bunch of A’s, a few F’s and a handful of incompletes.

What it won’t show is how, through a period of economic boom and now bust, his presence helped rejuvenate the spirit at the state’s flagship research university and made the UW as relevant and respected across the country as it’s ever been.

And while his exit will not hurt like the Sonics leaving Seattle or sting like Boeing choosing South Carolina, it will, for a while, affect the psyche of the Emerald City and the reputation of the storied institution.

To keep spirits up and stay near the spotlight, university regents need to find a successor of equal or even greater cachet than Emmert. It will be neither fast nor easy, as this person will inherit an increasing number of challenges amid decreasing amounts of state aid for the UW — and every other two- and four-year college, for that matter.

Regents would do well to engage Gov. Chris Gregoire from the beginning. Those contemplating the job won’t expect her to promise them any more than what Emmert received. They’ll want to know if the governor’s got their back should they get stuck in the web of politics spun by lawmakers and other influence peddlers.

Gregoire should be clear she’s willing to help them overcome resistance or interference from elected leaders in Olympia. Emmert was rebuffed in getting authority for the university to set tuition and in getting money to fix up Husky Stadium. He also took heat from legislative leaders on his salary, and they let him know they found him too Ivory Tower and not enough working class.

And Gregoire could act to remove a potential bureaucratic impediment before the new president arrives.

That leads to the second opening, executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Where Emmert made quite a splash with his exit, Ann Daley didn’t make a ripple when she retired from the HEC Board several weeks back.

She concluded a lengthy public service career working to improve the well-being and education of children. At this last stop, she re-established — with help from her close friend Gregoire — respect for an agency which, frankly, not many outside its offices are quite sure why it exists.

It runs financial aid programs, leads cheers for higher education and operates the turnstile that college leaders must pass through for approval of most academic initiatives.

Lawmakers embrace it as the place they send tough issues they can’t figure out or don’t want to act on. When they know what they want, they generally ignore the board.

This year, for example, the Legislature bypassed it to set up a four-year degree program in nursing at Everett Community College and earmark $1.75 million for aerospace training through Edmonds Community College.

The board coordinates conversations among college leaders but doesn’t govern their behavior, making its power limited. Gregoire would do well to pause the search for Daley’s successor long enough to consider the continued value of the agency. With a hard look, she’ll see the few million dollars spent on staff and studies might be welcomed by a new UW president for investing in students and teaching assistants.

A bill introduced last session would have made the HEC Board focus solely on financial aid and let others do the studying and the cheerleading. It’s a path university leaders privately want the state to take but are not willing to suggest out loud.

Not all vacant jobs can or will be filled in this economy.

Nor should they.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.