Higher ed’s critical mission

Higher-ed politics, like a livestock auction, centers on shouted bids and broad-shoulder maneuvering. Two generations ago, it was more a silent exchange of notes across a table, often shepherded by Charles Odegaard, the laconic UW president who served from 1958 until 1973 and elevated the university to its acclaimed rank. That was the Great Society era of federal largesse, when dinero tsunamied into Washington’s four-year universities, and quality of education was inversely proportional to tuition. Year after year in Olympia, higher ed was cast as a core service, as integral to the state’s economic and social fabric as transportation and human services.

Today, that core service is crumbling. Austerity is the new normal, with tuition hikes the partial backfill for draconian state cuts. The 32 percent tuition boost over two years authorized by regents presents a combo of highest-bidder access and a status-quo of decline. That is unacceptable to the presidents of the state’s four-year universities, and it should be unacceptable to most Washington families. Harmonizing affordability and excellence is the mission.

On Tuesday, the Council of Presidents, composed of the leaders of Washington’s six public universities, issued a challenge to legislators. If lawmakers appropriate $225 million in the 2013-15 operating budget, universities will freeze tuition levels for the next two years. According to the presidents’ statement, the last tuition hold was back in 1986.

Western Washington University’s president, Bruce Shepard, observed, “This is a bold initiative that creates greater opportunities for middle-class families, and is an investment that will be returned many times over in growing our state’s economy.”

It was a reasonable form of political extortion, a hear-us-roar strategy that also illustrates the law of unintended consequences.

State Sen. Pam Roach, best known for tormenting Republican caucus staffers and sponsoring an anti-bestiality bill, asked the attorney general’s office whether granting universities tuition-setting authority violates I-1185, the Eyman initiative requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Even answered yes. The 1185 bump is a manageable obstacle, however, since lawmakers already insert approved tuition increases into the state budget.

The broader challenge is resetting how lawmakers approach higher ed. The new vernacular revolves around investment and accountability. Today, unlike past decades, the Legislature is a minority investor, although it demands more for less. Micro management and floor debates on degree programs? Universities are improving with transparency and digestible metrics, including the new statewide, public four-year dashboard that measures everything from market penetration to course completion. Olympia is getting its return on investment, but university presidents need to beat on, boats against the current.

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