Washington State University and its president, Lane Rawlins, continue to come under fire from Spokane's business and political leadership because the school ranked the anticipated Riverpoint nursing facility down at number 30 on its priority list of capital projects. Gov. Gregoire wrote her budget to reflect the university's priority list, so her hands have been effectively tied. Sen. Lisa Brown complains about the WSU rankings and vows to do something to save the nursing building. The downtown business leaders call the WSU action an attack on the University District, as does the Spokesman-Review.
To the contrary, sign me up as the charter member of the "President Rawlins Is Right" fan club.
His list of priorities is in keeping with WSU's primary mission and addresses the increasingly grim political realities that drive higher education statewide. The nursing facility, our boosters notwithstanding, is neither critical to WSU's mission nor reflective of the state's shallow pool for funding.
WSU's capital projects list begins with projects that are necessary to maintain a WSU presence in the research and teaching world. The truth is that the nursing facility doesn't improve WSU's competitive position. It's just another piece of an academic shell game disguised as a University District (not to be confused with a "University"). We already have a nursing center -- just not the bigger, glitzier one down at Riverpoint. It's called the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing, and you can find it in the trees out by SFCC. What's at stake here is nothing more than the temporary loss of convenience and appearance, two factors that, in the form of program relocation, have driven the University District project from day one.
When the Riverpoint campus opened, just across from the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute (SIRTI) -- which, as we have finally come to admit, was neither "Intercollegiate" nor about "Research" -- it was always a business incubator disguised as "higher education." So what have we seen moving into the the Riverpoint Campus? Well, the EWU business school relocated from Cheney, as did urban planning and public administration. Arguably, WSU could have justified moving architecture -- after all, you might think that students would benefit from being around buildings -- but the Pullman campus wasn't about to let that one get away, so our beleaguered WSU branch campus dean managed to invent a hybrid program that borrowed from here and there. Then came the applied health science programs -- again, most were EWU relocations, plus the important pharmacy program from WSU. The point being, Riverpoint has yet to play home to a serious expansion of higher education in Spokane; most certainly, it has failed to bring to town doctoral-level research programs. Instead, it has become a site for various occupation training programs, almost every one existing previously in one form or another.
President Rawlins' list of capital projects, which favors essential development on the Pullman campus, is the first such list that admits to what has been an open secret. I recall hearing many times from WSU-Spokane's former dean that WSU would bring programs anywhere that it had support and funding. Rawlins' list, when viewed in the context of the WSU mission, simply addresses this problem head on: If the state wants to see more done on its branch campuses, it needs to find the money. The idea that the research university campuses should be forced to deteriorate in order to subsidize a political shell game is something Rawlins just doesn't buy.
While WSU (and to some extent EWU) have been criticized for foot-dragging down at Riverpoint, the truth is that development of the branch campus has always been held hostage to a bigger and more potent political equation than our locals want to address. Eventually, the shell game at Riverpoint will play out and questions of program expansion will have to be taken on. When this happens, the number of players and claimants to state coffers increases dramatically. Any serious talk of granting more academic program authority on the Spokane campus will immediately draw similar demands -- certainly from Western Washington University, and likely from the UW branch campus at Tacoma and the WSU branch campus at Vancouver (a faster-growing area than Spokane). And rest assured that the UW and WSU leadership is well aware that our state politicos have a bad habit of promising more program delivery (to use the jargon phrase) but not funding a dime of it, thus presenting our two flagship institutions with the prospect of starving existing programs to fund new ones or, as has been the case of late, raising tuition.
President Rawlins realizes that at the end of the day, WSU's future -- its continued ability to attract students from throughout the state (most come from the West Side, by the way) and research dollars -- rests with the health of the Pullman campus, a concern (and in Rawlins' case, a responsibility) largely independent of job training needs in Spokane.
If it is real change that we seek -- change that I believe we need -- then the very complex political problems I mention above need to be addressed directly. It is here, with these questions and issues -- not with relocating nursing schools -- that our discussions need to begin. That is the reality that the WSU priorities list reveals.