What is it about Spokane and higher education? If it isn't one magic bullet, it's another. First there was SIRTI, which was supposed to solve all our research shortcomings, but it became a problematic business incubator instead. We wanted Eastern to come to town. Then we wanted them to make way for the emerging WSU branch campus. Now the MB (that's magic bullet) du jour is the so-called "University District," which our boosters tell us is poised to bring "millions into Spokane." Gov. Locke even funded more construction there in his latest budget.
Yes, having a thriving college campus in downtown Spokane would be a good thing, but it takes a lot more than throwing up a few buildings to make it work. And from the looks of things, nobody really knows what they want this thing to be yet. The city is even sponsoring a workshop so that citizens can help -- and I quote -- "Define the vision of the University District." Are they kidding? Why stop there? Let's all get together and redesign the Department of Homeland Security. Creating a mission for an institution of higher education -- especially one so amorphous as Riverpoint -- is no small task.
On the off-chance that the operative word here really is "University" rather than "District," and in hopes that this is all about more than real estate deals, permit me a few observations and suggestions:
First, it bears repeating: The quality of any university varies inversely with the academic institution's responsiveness to local business and economic needs. Good universities adopt mission statements that speak to knowledge, gained and disseminated, regardless of what job the nearby widget-maker is hiring for. Contrast, if you will, the University of Washington's mission statement (which I believe has it about right) with Eastern's (which doesn't):
UW: "The primary mission of the University of Washington is the preservation, advancement and dissemination of knowledge."
EWU: "Its mission is to prepare broadly educated, technologically proficient and highly productive citizens to attain meaningful careers."
The UW is about transcending the community, while Eastern proudly announces that it is both in and of the community. From the very outset of the development of the University District -- way back when the Joint Center was created and SIRTI was first on the drawing boards -- if you were to strip away the rhetoric, what became clear was that the our local leadership didn't really want a UW; it wanted an Eastern. (What they actually wanted was the prestige of a UW -- or WSU would do -- wrapped in the responsiveness of an Eastern.) What emerges from this thinking isn't a university, let alone a research university. What emerges is state-funded job training. There isn't anything wrong with that. It's just that we have that base covered; they're called community colleges.
Unfortunately, the Riverpoint campus has developed as a suburban operation. Universities of the kind conjured up when you imagine a "University District" are mini-urban enclaves. What we have at Riverpoint is a commuter campus. Universities are about pedestrians and density and 24-hour-a-day student involvement. Suburban campuses are about convenience, the automobile, coursework and credentialing. Real universities seek to engage a world much larger than what can be described in terms familiar to local business. Commuter schools seek to pump out more widget-makers.
Can a suburban campus like Spokane's be transformed? Some have. George Mason University, for example, began in 1957 as the University of Virginia's Northern Virginia Branch Campus. By 1972, it became George Mason University, located in the affluent D.C. suburbs. Today it has an enrollment of 30,000, a self-contained campus, dorm life and a long list of serious doctoral programs and traditional liberal arts offerings, including fine and performing arts.
Portland State also developed from an extension campus. While the school advertises its use of Portland as a learning laboratory, and it is a distinctly urban campus, it doesn't openly pander to local economic development needs, and, as a result, it has grown academically.
Boise State has emerged to challenge the University of Idaho as the state's flagship university. True, the school has the advantage of being located in the state capitol, but more to the point, it has managed to take advantage of its urban location. Its offerings do reflect the developing needs of the local economy, but not so narrowly so as to impede its continuing development as a serious academic institution.
Spokane does face unique problems. A residential campus, Eastern, sits only 15 miles away. State laws governing branch campuses have been restrictive. (Just this week, however, Locke announced that the branch campuses of both WSU and UW were free to pursue some form of autonomy.) WSU's highly centralized system of governance kept desired programs just out of Riverpoint's reach. It seemed like the WSU approach to branch campus development was more about controlling as many chunks of the state budget pie as possible than it was about establishing true academic excellence in Spokane. As a result, any local plans to, say, move an engineering doctoral program to Spokane from Pullman never even made it onto the table.
If I can offer my own magic bullet, that would be it. Spokane needs to pursue the development of a real research university in the mold of a UW or a WSU. We need desirable graduate programs with the students and faculty to match. Such an institution could transform our region. Imagine: Doctoral programs at Riverpoint, complete with grants, contracts and around-the-clock research assistants. Then the campus could develop into what we all think of when we hear the term "University District." But if we are to have any chance at all, we must start asking the right questions, while mustering the courage to reflect on our past mistakes.