Face To Face

Trend is Toward Privitization of Public Universities

Another disappointment is the level of financial support higher education receives from the state. Like most states, Washington has decreased the percentage of state appropriations that go for higher education. In fact, if you charted the decline in state funding and projected the line into the future, it would reach zero by the year 2027. But we are not alone. A recent study found trend lines for higher education support in all 50 states eventually reaching zero.

McCormick knows that this scenario is imaginary, but it illustrates a serious point. "Higher education is now regarded as something that mainly benefits the individual, not society. This line of thinking suggests it is appropriate for students and their parents to pay the bills for college. The collective benefits of higher education are much less fully recognized today than they were by my parents' generation in the years after World War II," he says.

Looking specifically at our own state, McCormick says he is worried. During the 1990s, the impact of three voter initiatives limited access to public higher education. In the early part of the decade came the spending-limit initiative I-601. Later came I-200, dismantling affirmative action, and I-695, reducing the motor vehicle excise tax and putting a $750 million hole in the state budget. In this climate, Olympia has cut back UW requests for more enrollments and more facilities, despite the arrival of the baby boom echo.

"I'm concerned about our state's priorities and investments. Between I-601, I-200 and I-695, Washington has reduced its commitment to a half-century of tradition and policy involving the use of government to advance opportunity and equality," he says.

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"I don't mean that the people of this state have utterly renounced that tradition. That would be an exaggeration. But they've backed away from a full scale commitment," he adds. "So I worry about these directions."

Many alumni don't realize that taxpayer dollars only pay about 16 percent of the UW's annual operating budget. The UW leverages this money to pull in research dollars, private giving, patient revenue from its teaching hospitals and other sources to create a $1.8 billion enterprise. "State support is needed to get academic work done and to achieve excellence in core fields," the President explains.

As the University depends more and more on dollars from other sources, it travels down the road to privatization. While McCormick is a graduate of two private institutions—Amherst and Yale—both his parents worked for New Jersey's flagship public university, Rutgers, and he has spent his entire career in the public university setting.

"I believe in public education, but I am perhaps a little more battle-hardened by the years of contending for all kinds of budgetary support, including state support, tuition increases and private support," he says. "We're going to maintain the excellence of the UW and its accessibility through a wide range of funding measures, including fighting hard to maintain and increase the state's investment in the University. But I am under no illusion that that's going to be enough to maintain our academic distinction and our students' opportunities.

"I do believe in public higher education. But the trend line is going the other way right now."

One disturbing trend is the University's ongoing brain drain. A widening pay gap coupled with the higher cost of living in Seattle makes the UW faculty ripe for the picking by other top universities. Tracking the flight of faculty two years ago, the UW found that even when it made a counteroffer, nearly a quarter of the professors still left.

Historian Richard White was one of them, departing for Stanford and blaming the state Legislature for his decision because of its persistent underfunding. Earlier this year geneticist Leroy Hood, who was lured to the UW with the help of a $12 million gift by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, cut his UW ties to establish a private research center.

While Hood's departure had more to do with state regulations than it did with state funding, it was still a blow to the UW's reputation. "It's a serious issue," McCormick says of the brain drain. "When you pay salaries that are, on average, 15 percent lower than your peers—and that's before you take into account the higher cost of living in Seattle—you have to worry. And I worry a lot about it."

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