Leaders should unite behind a UW branch

Despite a lot of talking, local lawmakers still haven’t united behind a singular plan to bring a four-year university to Snohomish County. With just a month remaining in the legislative session, the time to do so is now.

The University of Washington has expressed strong interest in being the answer to the current and future need for bachelor’s degrees in Snohomish, Island and Skagit counties. UW President Mark Emmert is expected to propose opening a branch campus in the area to his Board of Regents on Thursday; lawmakers and other local leaders should join in support of that idea.

If they remain split over whether to pursue a UW branch or a stand-alone institution, local leaders risk losing out altogether – a risk not worth taking. An offer by one of the world’s leading research universities to locate a campus here, focused on four-year and graduate programs in high-demand fields, should be easy to embrace. It will help meet regional and statewide needs for bachelor’s degrees soon and into the future, offering an attractive, prestigious option to local students who can’t or don’t want to travel far from home to pursue a four-year degree.

The support of Gov. Chris Gregoire for a new campus here, which is key, is likely dependent on local leaders coalescing behind one plan. After taking some political lumps over the Alaskan Way viaduct fight, we can’t see the governor stepping into the middle of another local dispute. We mustn’t turn the quest for a four-year university into “our viaduct.”

The timing for a workable plan couldn’t be better. Strong state revenue projections and a commitment to a more competitive workforce are adding up to an increase in higher ed funding that will create some 8,000 more bachelor’s degrees by 2010 and 2,000 more by 2020 – all focused in high-demand fields like computer science, engineering, life sciences, medical research, nursing and teaching. A UW branch in Snohomish County could focus on just such degrees, without undermining the vital role our community and technical colleges play.

A UW branch could launch quickly, offering degree programs starting in the next year or two. A new stand-alone institution would take much longer – and probably isn’t possible anyway because it lacks the support of existing institutions. And going with a UW branch campus doesn’t preclude the vision of a major polytechnic institute. In a few years, that’s what this could become.

Local leaders on all sides of this issue have been working hard and earnestly, and their efforts have created a fabulous opportunity to establish a major, long-term university presence in Snohomish County. It’s time to seize it by embracing the purple and gold.

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