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Originally published Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 10:02 PM

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Presidents lament budget cuts draining state's universities

Cutbacks to higher education are causing a brain drain at Washington public universities, the presidents of Washington's six four-year higher-education institutions said Wednesday.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Cutbacks to higher education are causing a brain drain at Washington public universities, and the state is gaining a national reputation for the severity of its cutbacks, the presidents of Washington's six four-year higher-education institutions said Wednesday.

"Washington is now known as a place to go headhunting" for out-of-state universities hiring new faculty, said Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University (WWU). "This is a real threat, long term, to sustaining the excellence of our universities."

The discussion was attended by about 400 people at Town Hall Seattle and was sponsored by The Seattle Times.

The presidents all spoke forcefully about the level of hurt the universities have sustained, from faculty members lured away by higher-paying jobs to students who are struggling to pay rapidly escalating tuitions.

Students are accumulating more debt, Central Washington University President James Gaudino said. "They're working 40 hours a week and going to school full time, and we're seeing a lot more stress and mental-health problems." As a result, many students are questioning whether a four-year degree is worth it, he said.

Washington ranks 48th among the states in per capita enrollment in public baccalaureate (undergraduate) programs, although it has one of the highest rates of community-college enrollment in the country. In the past four years, funding for the state's five universities and one four-year college — The Evergreen State College — was cut by about 50 percent. The state now is funding four-year schools at about the same level it did in 1991.

"No state has found it necessary to slash higher education to the extent that the state of Washington has," Shepard said.

And the current legislative session is likely to serve up more of the same. Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed another 15 percent to 17 percent cut to four-year schools this year, or $160 million.

"Even as we disinvest in higher ed, jobs requiring a baccalaureate or associate degree are going unfilled because of the lack of qualified applicants, while jobs requiring only a high-school education are swamped with multiple applicants," Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen said in introducing the panel.

Shepard, who spent most of his academic career in Oregon and came here four years ago to became president of WWU, described the "biggest shock" for him was walking the halls of Olympia and finding that "higher education was seen as the problem, not the solution." But he said he believed that attitude, at least, seems to have changed, and more voices are calling on lawmakers to stop the cuts.

"I'm positive, in the long run, this could turn things around for this state," he said.

Margaret Shepherd, director of state relations for the University of Washington (UW), said late Wednesday that the governor's budget looks like the best-case scenario for funding, and the Legislature may cut even more out of higher education.

In part, lawmakers are concerned about more bad revenue news. But they also are reacting to a recent state Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature is not funding K-12 education adequately. That has made K-12 funding almost untouchable.

Gregoire proposed "buying back" the cuts to higher education with a sales-tax increase, but Shepherd said there's no consensus among lawmakers about which cuts should be restored with a sales-tax increase, even if such a measure were to pass.

UW's budget is built on the premise that undergraduate tuition will rise 16 percent for the upcoming 2012-13 school year, Shepherd said. She didn't know what effect a larger funding cut would have on tuition but said the university has been "pretty clear" to the Legislature that it cannot keep increasing tuition by double-digit figures.

In addition to Shepard and Gaudino, participants in the Town Hall panel were University of Washington President Michael Young, Washington State University President Elson Floyd, The Evergreen State College President Les Purce and Eastern Washington University President Rodolfo Arevalo.

Also participating were Sally Jewell, president and CEO of REI and a member of the UW Board of Regents; Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president of Microsoft; and Laura Peterson, vice president for Northwest state and local government operations at The Boeing Co.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219

or klong@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @katherinelong

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