Advanced Degree of Angst

The real scandal at UW might be funding inequity on a campus of fiefdoms.

When noted historian and former University of Washington professor Richard White heard that university President Richard McCormick was pressured to leave last year because of an affair, he was dumbfounded. "I don't understand what's going on at the university," says White, now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "With all the things going on in the world, the university is cracking down on this?"

It seems to White that the UW Board of Regents' treatment of McCormick, at least as reported by The Seattle Times a couple of weeks ago, smacks of moralism. It is a point of view also heard on the UW campus. "Are we a Catholic institution?" asks Gayla Diment, a Slavic languages professor who edits an e-mail listserve for the UW chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

There might be more to the story than we know, because the woman reportedly involved with McCormick was on the UW staff. What has come out so far, though, seems so odd that Diment, like others, suspects that the regents used the affair as a "convenient excuse" to get rid of a president they were unhappy with for other reasons.

THE REGENTS WON'T say much about McCormick or their decision making. Regent Bill Gates Sr. maintains that the former president did "a good job." But voices of dissatisfaction with McCormick's tenure are not hard to find. Last week, the AAUP came out with a "report card" on the health of the university as it relates to faculty. Assessing the period governed by McCormick, who arrived in 1995 and is now the president of Rutgers University, the report gives the administration a "D."

At the heart of faculty criticism is McCormick's handling of the university's financesmore precisely, his failure to wring more money out of the Legislature and his management of the consequences. As of the 2001 fiscal year, the university ranked 21st out of 24 peer institutions (public research universities around the country) in per-student, state, and local funding. Many around the university see that as a crisis, one far bigger than the series of athletic and other scandals that have made headlines over the past year. How that crisis played out under McCormick's watch says a lot about what kind of university will be inherited by a successor, the search for whom is under way.

The confusing thing about the cries of crisis coming from the university is that, in many respects, the institution is not only functioning but thriving. The medical school continues to be ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News & World Report. The university receives more grant funding from the National Institutes of Health than any other public university nationwide. And just since August, the UW has completed three dazzling new buildingsfor the fields of law, medicine, and computer scienceand broken ground on a fourth building, for the study of bioengineering and genome sciences. While those developments are mainly in the sciences, the university's Simpson Center for Humanities is also expanding programs and making waves across the country.

ALL THOSE ACHIEVEMENTS, though, have come about largely through outside funding, whether in research grants or private donations. In contrast, the university departments that rely on state funding are "starving," says AAUP President James Gregory. These include many of the departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, a college that the university bills as its "heart" and which is primarily responsible for educating undergraduates.

Faculty in these departments have long complained about salaries that have fallen far below those at competing universities. The AAUP report reveals that half a dozen departments, from Asian studies to comparative literature, have median salaries as low as $50,000 or less. Faculty members are not departing in quite the droves that many people think, the report cautions. Some 6 percent of the faculty has been leaving annually. But some notable stars have taken better offers, including historian White, and pockets of the university have been decimated both by resignations and by retirements encouraged as a means of cost-cutting.

The AAUP's Gregory says that the history department where he teaches will, by December, have lost a quarter of its faculty in two years. The 10 departing faculty members include all three of the university's Latin American historians. "The whole enterprise of Latin American studies has been seriously damaged," Gregory says. According to the UW's policy of attrition, the department is authorized to fill just two of those 10 positions, including one in Latin American studies.

IN THE CASH-POOR areas of the university, even basic services are hard to come by, says Faculty Senate President Douglas Wadden. He relates how he called a department recently because he was having a hard time getting in touch with a faculty member. "He seems to have no voice mail," Wadden told the department secretary. "The department has no voice mail," the secretary replied. "It got cut in the budget." Wadden says he thought, "God, has it come to that?"

This is the parallel reality of today's UW: Some departments have no voice mail, others have new, multimillion-dollar facilities. "There's never been a time in my 33 years here where there has been that big a difference between the haves and the have-nots," Wadden says. The AAUP report refers to this development as a "Balkanization" of the university, as different colleges go their separate ways, according to their ability at fund-raising. That trend has even more meaning given that the vast majority of the university budget now comes from sources other than the state, which supplies only 13 percent of the institution's core budget (excluding Harborview Medical Center and some other enterprises).

Is McCormick responsible for all this? The AAUP report takes his administration to task for establishing a "pay-your-own-way" policy among departments. The association's Gregory suggests that the university could mediate the inequalities brought about by fund-raising by requiring donors to allot a portion of their gift to the university as a whole. McCormick's budget strategy also comes under attack in the report, which actually accuses him of not having one and instead relying on haphazard cuts that accidentally result in the loss of whole programs, like Latin American studies.

AT THE CRUX of the matter, though, is McCormick's ability to get state money. The AAUP argues that McCormick missed an opportunity by failing to mobilize the UW community, including its hundreds of thousands of alumni, to persuasively lobby the Legislature. If the regents were judging McCormick on results alone, this surely is where he would have been found lacking. It's not that higher education failed to get increased state funding in recent years. It did. During a couple of biennia during the 1990s, the higher education budget even grew at a higher percentage than did the overall state budget. But because of the increase in the state's student population, per-student funding has fallen, by about $1,700 at the state's four-year institutions, since the early 1990s. Unless substantial new money is made available, that decline is only going to continue as the echo of the baby boom funnels 34,000 new students into the state's higher-education system by 2010.

McCormick made a big effort with the Legislature early on. He dropped in to visit even the most junior legislators. Presumably to counter the image of UW as arrogant and Seattle-centric, he took busloads of new faculty on tours of the state.

But considered a rather isolated figure on campus, he was not a natural at developing relationships. And he was up against a lot. Even in the boom years, the Legislature was constrained by the limit on spending mandated by Initiative 601 and the runaway inflation in entitlements like Medicaid. Moreover, higher education simply isn't at the top of most legislators' priorities. "A whole bunch of people don't get a lot of political benefit out of it," allows Rep. Fred Jarrett, a Mercer Island Republican on the House's higher education committee. The concerns of the UW are not what politicians hear when they're out doorbelling, he says. While some legislators see the state's flagship university as an economic engine, Jarrett says, others see it as "a high-cost provider that takes resources away" from the institution in their district, even if that's a community college. Oddly, in a state brimming with community colleges, you have to make a case for the value of bachelor's degrees.

Perhaps the UW regents, in pressuring McCormick to leave, thought that someone more charismatic could be making that case. It seemed as though the regents were looking for a superstar when they reportedly interviewed former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley for the job; he ultimately withdrew his name from consideration.

IF A POTENTIAL new president sees a Herculean task in finding more money and reuniting campus fiefdoms, he or she might also see signs of some hope. This week, The Seattle Times reported that the League of Education Voters is working on proposed legislation that would ask voters to fund all levels of public education to the tune of $1 billion more per year.

Jarrett is trying to raise the profile of higher education in the Legislature with a bill he is working on with Rep. Skip Priest of Federal Way, a fellow Republican, which proposes that the state negotiate contracts with educational institutions, linking funding with performance criteria.

UW Regent Sally Jewel, CEO of REI, says she's floated the idea of a higher education tax with a subcommittee of the Governor's Competitiveness Council on which she sits. There's a debate raging all over the nation, Jewel says. "Do we want our public educational institutions to stay public? And if so, are we willing to pay for it?" That discussion might be more important than any new president the regents are likely to pick.

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