OLYMPIA — As Washington’s colleges struggle to stave off the effects of deep cuts in state funding, one university president is forging ahead with a bold bid for expansion.
What is E
lson Floyd thinking?
“There is one very simple reason: Everett and Snohomish County deserve to have a stronger four-year presence in their community,” the president of Washington State University said this week.
Delivering it has been anything but simple.
In the last 60 years, a
surplus of politics and shortage of funding sank every erstwhile endeavor at launching a four-year college anywhere in the county.
Those forces are present again as Floyd and Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson ramp up a new run at the old goal.
“I’ve been in this business long enough not to be surprised by anything,” Floyd said. “We’re right now making sure that people understand what the intentions are of WSU and how we can add value to Everett and Snohomish County generally.”
What Washington State University wants is to be in charge of the University Center of North Puget Sound housed at Everett Community College. The center is a consortium of public and private colleges which offers a buffet of bachelor’s and master’s degree courses. Today, roughly 500 students are enrolled in the courses.
If WSU takes over, this means ousting EvCC as the center’s administrator. State lawmakers must approve the swap, and, if it happens, WSU could be determining which classes are offered and by which university starting in 2013.
Such change could be profound for the community. WSU would have a foundation on which to build a lasting presence — like a branch campus, maybe even a full-fledged research university.
Not so fast, Floyd cautioned.
“We’ve not had any conversations, discussions about a branch campus,” he said. “That’s clearly not in the mix, and it should not be in the mix given the economic circumstance in which we find ourselves.
“That’s not what we are asking the Legislature to offer us,” said Floyd, who laid out his school’s intentions in a letter to the governor and key lawmakers last week. “The only thing we’re asking the Legislature to do is to permit Washington State University to become the lead partner in the University Center. We would continue the management of academic programs in the same way that it’s being done currently except you would then have the power, the influence, if you will, of a research institution helping to coordinate.”
Stephanson’s been trying to land a research university in Everett since becoming mayor. He first reached out to the University of Washington and, with the help of several lawmakers, nearly landed a branch campus. When that effort fizzled in 2009, he teamed up with Floyd.
But the approach pushed by the mayor and the president isn’t sitting well with leaders of EvCC and the state Board of Community Technical Colleges.
The center is performing at its peak and such change could take it down, they worry.
“This represents the first successful move into baccalaureate education in the Everett area,” said Charlie Earl, executive director of the state board. “It’s just not the right move.”
Originally, Western Washington University ran the program out of Everett Station. In 2005, frustration with a lack of growth in numbers of classes and students prompted the Legislature to hand control over to Everett Community College. Lawmakers also provided millions of dollars to make space for it on the college’s campus.
Earl and EvCC President David Beyer said they’ve been left largely out of the conversation. Until they get details, they view it as potentially more harmful than good.
“There’s a sense that it would dismantle everything going on,” Beyer said. “Saying we’re going to do this without a written plan, I don’t see that as a friendly gesture.”
Beyer is a little peeved at WSU. EvCC wanted WSU to provide a mechanical engineering class but couldn’t get a commitment and turned to Saint Martin’s.
“We tried to get them to do it. Then they decided not to do it and then they want to take over this whole operation,” he said.
Floyd and Stephanson didn’t anticipate the force of the push-back. It’s meant regrouping and reassessing how much they can achieve in the Legislature this year.
“We have to build a lot of consensus. We’re still doing that,” Floyd said.
An initial draft of the legislation assigns control of the center to WSU in July 2013. They’ll need the time to work out the kinks of transition and craft a plan for adding academic programs.
Floyd said the university center would operate much the same in the future as it does today and WSU won’t be swiping the state-funded enrollment slots — measured in full-time equivalents or FTEs — away from other colleges.
If there’s any change, it could mean fewer offerings from private schools if a public one can do the same thing.
“We’ll have to look at any duplication of effort between what’s currently being provided and what could be provided in the future,” he said.
“The FTEs would remain with Everett Community College. The director of the center as we envision it would become a WSU employee,” he said. “So this is not about cannibalizing Everett Community College or taking FTEs away from those institutions that have FTEs.”
Floyd isn’t only dealing with concerns of community college leaders. Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard doesn’t like the proposal and said so in a letter sent to his peers earlier this month.
And this week, University of Washington Interim President Phyllis Wise and UW Bothell Chancellor Kenyon Chan wrote Gov. Chris Gregoire to embrace the center’s success and caution against any change without specifics.
Not long ago, the state invested a couple million dollars toward establishing a UW branch campus in the county.
In 2008, there was money for classes if the Legislature settled on an eventual site for the college. It never happened as legislators representing Snohomish County fought to a draw on whether it should go in Everett or Marysville.
Floyd arrived at WSU as that drama unfolded, and he said he never thought about trying to wrestle in on the action.
“I made it very clear to President Emmert that WSU would only consider any engagement if the University of Washington was not willing to serve in that role,” Floyd said. “And I maintain the same position now as I did then. If the University of Washington is desirous of assuming the role that has been defined, then that’s their choice and we will support them in that regard. But it’s my understanding that that is not the role that the University of Washington is desirous of playing.”
Floyd isn’t predicting a better outcome, though he knows there’s a cost for not achieving one.
“It’s another legislative cycle that the people of Everett are not getting the types of services and programs and educational offerings that they deserve,” he said. “That has been the case for almost two decades now. It’s my very, very strong feeling that the citizens of Everett and those who reside in that area deserve more and that they should rely on their research institutions to provide it.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org