Remembering Riverpoint's Founder

by WILLIAM GRAY and LOIS STRATTON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t is sadly infrequent that a community takes the time to celebrate its visionaries. And all too often, it is done so out of tragedy. This is one such case. About two weeks ago Spokane lost just such a visionary: Gerald ("Jerry") Saling, EdD., who was a college president, state senator and leader in our community for many years.

Jerry Saling was the father of the Riverpoint campus and SIRTI. He took a concept created by a few faculty from WSU and the Community Colleges of Spokane, brought it to life, and secured funding for it. Today's "University District," with the presence of several institutions, state of the art research facilities, and thousands of students has not only transformed the east end of downtown, but is arguably the future economic engine of the Inland Northwest. As a community college guy, Jerry knew that Spokane would always be the "other" Washington unless we evolved from our blue-collar roots into a knowledge-based community. He knew that it was only through the development of resident graduate and research programs that Spokane would become economically competitive. And he wanted to make sure that the resulting knowledge found its way into the marketplace. He saw this as a way to avoid the exodus of fine minds from our community.

Securing support for the new campus was not easy. Jerry had to provide a vision for a region with no previous experience as a university community; to paint a picture of a future beyond manufacturing to a skeptical business community; and to deal with lackluster support from administrations at EWU and WSU. And all of this had to be done prior to going to Olympia and arguing for dollars for Eastern Washington.

Jerry was no milquetoast. He was cranky at times, even obstreperous. Yet had he not been, he could not have gotten the job done. In the Senate, he held others' projects hostage for our campus and constantly had to battle traditionalists at UW and WSU who had become accustomed to getting their high priority capital projects funded. His 1989 legislation authorizing the formation of SIRTI and WSU Spokane actually provided an appropriation and directed WSU to buy a specific parcel at a fixed price. Jerry had no confidence that the transaction would actually take place without such direction. So, he made certain it did.

Spokane and higher education have been fortunate to have leaders like Jerry Saling. Unfortunately, too few remain. Jerry Tucker from GU passed away; Bob Elton from EWU retired and relocated, as did Sam Smith; community leaders with an appreciation for higher education such as Max Snyder and Jim West (who first coined the descriptor "university district" for Spokane) have passed away. Future students will not have known these leaders, but they have been well served. The foundation was firmly built by these leaders, and even survived the plethora of EWU presidents, WSU provosts, and Olympia budget watchdogs.

The Riverpoint campus is developing nicely with its classroom and laboratory buildings, green space, and connections to downtown, but it is missing the one thing that can truly set it apart as an academic community: a recognition of the founders who lent form and substance to the vision of a campus. Its buildings have names like: "Health Sciences Building," "Academic Center," "Phase 1 Classroom Building," "SIRTI Building" and "South Campus Facility." While these names are descriptive, they fall short of the practice of giving recognition to important individuals that is so much a part of the academic tradition. Often, the naming of academic buildings is intensely political and commonly requires a major financial contribution by the family of the individual whose name is proposed. There is no need for such a contentious ordeal here. Instead, we propose to the SIRTI Board that it would be fitting recognition for the SIRTI Building to be renamed the "Gerald L. Saling Center."

We are well on our way to achieving Jerry's dream -- that Spokane take its rightful place as a university community. The only truly fitting memorial to Jerry -- as educator, public servant, and SIRTI visionary -- is to emblazon his name on the first brick and mortar laid on this campus.

William H. Gray, PhD., was the founding dean of WSU Spokane, 1987-2003. Lois J. Stratton was a member of the Washington House of Representatives from 1979-1984 and the Washington State Senate from 1985-1993.

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