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March 9, 2011 at 2:32 PM

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University presidents warn lawmakers about higher-ed budget cuts

Posted by Katherine Long

For weeks now, the presidents of Washington's six four-year universities have been painting a desperate picture of how cutbacks to higher education are already affecting the schools, and how more cuts will worsen the pain.

But Jim Gaudino, president of Central Washington University (CWU), had a story to tell the state House of Representatives' higher education committee Wednesday that might top them all: On the school's Ellensburg campus, some classes are so crowded that they violate safety regulations.

"I now have a fire marshall who comes in and kicks kids out of class because there are too many students in the room for fire codes," Gaudino said.

The House committee took testimony Wednesday from representatives of all six schools, as well as several students. The state is looking at substantial higher-education budget cuts for the 2011-13 biennium.

Presidents Gaudino, Phyllis Wise of the University of Washington and Elson Floyd of Washington State University all said they fear they will lose top faculty and drive away the best students if higher education funding continues to be slashed. And it will take years to rebuild the universities' reputations and programs.

"When you lose your best faculty, you lose your best students," Wise said. Floyd, too, said that the best faculty members at WSU "are being recruited underneath us."

Ralph Munro, the former Washington secretary of state who is now a trustee for Western Washington University, said that under the most severe cutback scenario, it could take a WWU student almost seven years to complete his or her degree because so many courses would be cut, forcing students to wait to enroll in classes that are necessary for their majors.

"That's a killer for many families," he said.

WWU, UW and CWU are all considering cutting back on the number of in-state students they enroll, and taking more out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition rates. (At the UW, for example, non-resident students pay almost three times the rate that resident students pay.)

"We're going to accept the kid from Las Vegas, and not the kid from Gig Harbor," Munro said. "Our kids are going to be eliminated."

Gaudino said CWU now waives tuition for many middle-class students who don't qualify for financial aid. If more cuts are made, CWU will have to stop offering those tuition waivers. Low-income students who receive financial aid, and upper-income students who can afford the tuition, will still be able to attend CWU, but "the middle-class cluster is going to get hurt," he said.

UW graduate student Ben Henry testified that he has had to go into bankruptcy to help manage his student loans and living expenses. "This is what it means to be a student," he said. "Tuition is being relied upon more than ever before to make up for these proposed cuts."

Munro suggested that further cuts would deeply erode the quality of education Washington universities offer.

"I don't want to be like Oregon, which has a hell of a good football team, but nothing in the classroom," Munro said. "Some people might be offended by that, but it's true."

UW athletic director Scott Woodward landed in hot water last year when he made similar comments disparaging Oregon for poor academics.

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