A few weeks back, as the Washington state legislative session geared up, Eastern Washington University President Steve Jordan proposed that Eastern and all the branch campuses be granted limited doctoral granting authority. The proposal at the time didn't get all that much press, likely because before it saw the light of day, the Council of Presidents had declared it DOA. While Jordan's colleagues may not oppose the upgrading of Eastern's master's in physical therapy to doctoral status, they will go no further. Moreover, they were somewhat miffed that Jordan would launch such a political missile without doing a better job of consulting.
But to say that Jordan must first gain the support of all stakeholders -- from city leaders to university colleagues to members of the legislative delegation -- isn't to say he was wrong. Essentially, Eastern's president was trying to accomplish through incremental means what city leaders have been trying for two decades to accomplish more frontally.
I refer to the creation of a general doctoral granting research university in Spokane. Only three years ago, local leaders failed in an attempt to merge Eastern with WSU. An earlier attempt in the 1980s failed as well. Also during the '80s, the EWU Board of Trustees advanced a counterproposal that paralleled if not duplicated the one that Jordan was ready to propose. There were no takers. Spokane's leadership wanted WSU or nothing. For their efforts, during this last go around, they did get a WSU branch campus, but the goal of a locally controlled research university remains elusive.
While Spokane settles for a branch campus, cities like Boise and Portland are reaping the benefits of having instituted locally controlled universities decades ago. And both cities have floated on the national economy's rising tide in recent years, while Spokane has remained stuck in neutral.
In the minds of most, the need for such an institution -- Spokane State University -- is manifest. The benefits have been listed often: more research dollars, an influx of very bright students, cultural enrichment, connectedness to a larger world, likely commercial spin-offs, to cite but a few. We must figure out a way to provide the state's second largest city the academic institution that it needs. And time is of the essence.
Even were Spokane not experiencing pressing economic development challenges, the city and metropolitan area should become home to a doctoral level research university. But East of the Cascades, it is only here in the Spokane metropolitan area where so much of our societal rubber meets the road: Problems from poverty to economic development, from infrastructure to the environment fairly beg for public policy that is informed by serious and sophisticated study.
Of course, research universities are always good for economic development, but they are not solely about economic development. Rather, they are about knowledge and understanding, and yes, let us not forget, students. Even our "professional" programs that cater to the most practical-minded of our students are about the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. This is as it should be. Does anyone think, for example, that the University of Michigan would be the great institution it is if its reason for being was limited to the intellectual care and feeding of the automotive industry?
Only in Spokane can the arguments for a doctoral granting research university be cast in such a limited and limiting way. Does WSU, for example, exist to serve the needs of Pullman? (It's actually educating much of King County, if you look at the enrollment statistics.) How many of WSU's engineering students come from Pullman? Or even more importantly, how many stay?
There are models right under our noses that promise to inform our debate and deliberations. Boise State and Portland State are often mentioned; but, so far as I know, they have not been thoroughly and systematically examined. Why not? While our local residential universities want to be all things to all people to keep their share of the pie coming in, there are lessons to be learned from Boise State and Portland State. Both are doctoral granting institutions, albeit of recent vintage. Both are making important contributions to their respective communities. Both struggle to claim a share of resources that historically have gone to the larger research institutions. Both have made engineering a high priority and have managed to mount serious degree programs (in the case of Portland State, doctoral programs) that seem to duplicate programs already being offered at the larger research universities -- Idaho, Oregon and Oregon State -- underscoring even more the political challenges they have overcome.
Both have also made urban affairs a high priority. Boise State has also explicitly included among its priorities other pertinent areas of study, inquiry and creativity: the performing arts, the social sciences and the omnipresent teacher preparation.
To the contrary of our local experience, however, both Boise State and Portland State developed in previously unoccupied academic territory; both are relatively new institutions. Neither can claim the history of Washington State University nor Eastern Washington University (a fact that could cut a number of ways -- one man's tradition is another's intransigence).
Which brings us to a matter of overriding importance. I refer to the institutional context within which any transformation must take place. That too must be considered. While doctoral programs may well be important for Spokane, the state has made a huge public investment, both in Pullman and in Cheney. So how to design a transformation that is not unnecessarily redistributive? How did Boise State do it? How did Portland State do it? Is it all about the political clout that Boise and Portland have brought to bear (and, if that's the case, what does that say about our delegation to Olympia and the need for city/county consolidation)?
President Jordan's proposal was overly narrow and limited. Moreover, it was framed in isolation. But building on his initiative, the issue should be put back on the list of important community priorities. In order to move this issue off dead center, our community leadership -- governmental, political, business and academic -- must reach agreement on an informed vision that reflects Spokane as a place for higher learning.
The future looks like Portland State and Boise State -- not the hodgepodge of turf battles, degree tug-of-wars and fuzzy missions we currently have here in Spokane. The Inland Northwest's higher education needs would be served best by the kind of customized fit institutions like Portland State and Boise State offer. Until we at least accept that as the foundation for any debate that follows, we cannot hope to realize our region's potential.