Gov. Jay Inslee should name two new UW regents who will actively push for the increased state revenues necessary to strengthen state support for UW and the entire state public higher education system.
IT’S great that 21,700 individuals have contributed more than $62 million to Western Washington University [“Donors creating new higher-education pathways,” Opinion, May 1]. We applaud Howard Lincoln’s Op-Ed in which he highlights the importance of Washington’s public universities and laments the Legislature’s deep funding cuts and the resulting “skyrocketing tuition for students.”
But voluntary donations will never bridge the college funding gap. Between 2009 and 2012, state lawmakers slashed University of Washington funding by more than $200 million. That’s $200 million per year. The result was as predictable as it was tragic — UW had to raise tuition dramatically, burdening students and their families with life-altering debt.
And tuition increases hit families of color hardest. In-state tuition and fees equal more than one-quarter of the incomes of Black, American Indian, and Latino households in Washington.
Yes, the Legislature has restored some of the funds it cut, but state support for UW is still more than $100 million per year lower than it was just 12 years ago. No private fundraising campaign can substitute for the consistent investment by state taxpayers in public universities, which are building blocks to democracy and critical links to equal opportunity, as well as drivers of both individual and regional economic well-being.
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The growing reliance on private money at UW — and public universities across the nation — is not only insufficient for supporting a world-class public university but also distorts its public mission. Private donors and investors have specific interests when they offer funding — they want a better pool of potential employees or more research into a profitable technology or a stronger football program. These interests don’t necessarily coincide with the public interests of having a well-educated and well-rounded citizenry, of giving young people the opportunity to pursue their passions and dreams and not just a paycheck, of building knowledge that will benefit humankind, not just a bottom line.
It’s past time to reverse this damaging trend. The Legislature needs to greatly increase its support to the state’s public universities, and it needs to do so without harming the state’s other priorities — basic education, social and economic support for struggling families and communities, environmental protection, and transportation and energy systems that don’t further damage the earth’s climate.
To be blunt, building a state in which young people have affordable access to education as well as a strong safety net, healthy communities, and vibrant economy will require new revenue — new or higher taxes.
Good ideas already exist, ideas that would make our tax system both fairer and more efficient. Fairness is important. In Washington state, which relies so heavily on the sales tax, poor people pay six times more in taxes than rich people do, as a proportion of their incomes. And this tax burden makes the barrier to a college education — already high due to tuition increases — that much higher.
The UW Board of Regents, the group of governor appointees, has primary responsibility for protecting and advancing the university’s public mission. Some regents have spoken out about the need for more state revenue to adequately fund higher education. But others have actively campaigned against fair and reasonable proposals, such as a capital-gains tax on wealthier state residents and closing costly, ineffective corporate tax breaks. This points to a lack of balance among current regents, the majority of whom come from business or finance, rather than education. Surprisingly, UW faculty do not have a voting seat on the Board of Regents, something that faculty have been working to change for several years.
Two regent positions will come up for appointment this September. We urge Gov. Jay Inslee to name UW regents who will actively push for the increased state revenues necessary to strengthen state support for UW and the entire state public higher education system. Private donations and private interests may have a role at the university, but they can never substitute for our primary “stakeholder,” the citizenry of Washington and the legislators who serve it.