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TACOMA — Twenty-four years after greeting its first class of students, the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus has reached several major milestones.

Its enrollment topped 4,000 this academic year. It has received $400,000 from the state Legislature to create a law-school program that could open in fall 2015. It is partnering with the YMCA to build a $20 million University Y Student Center in downtown Tacoma. And the historic rail line through the center of campus will reopen as a pedestrian and bike path this fall.

People within and outside of the university say much of the credit for focusing UW-Tacoma’s mission and accelerating its progress goes to its former chancellor Debra Friedman.

Friedman died in January at 58, not long after she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Many people who knew her tear up when they talk about how much she accomplished in 2½ years.

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“She had more of an impact on this community than I think anyone realized at the time,” said Valarie Zeeck, a Tacoma attorney and head of the Tacoma Law Foundation, which is working to create the UW-Tacoma law school.

Friedman wanted UW-Tacoma to be the anchor tenant of a revitalized downtown Tacoma, and an “urban-serving campus,” as she described it — capitalizing on its location in the downtown core of one of the state’s major cities, as well as its proximity to one of the nation’s largest military bases.

And she did much to achieve that vision.

“This place, and its impact on this community, is gigantic,” said Interim Chancellor Kenyon Chan. “It’s this synergy you feel right away.” Chan, who served for many years as chancellor of UW-Bothell, will be interim chancellor until a new leader is chosen.

JBLM connection

UW-Tacoma has taken a while to reach a critical mass.

One of five branch university campuses created by the Legislature in the late 1980s, the school opened in 1990 with fewer than 200 students and didn’t reach an enrollment of 2,000 for more than a decade.

Now, the university has set an ambitious goal: top 7,000 students by 2020.

Under Friedman’s leadership, the university developed three priorities: It forged a closer link to the K-12 public-school system in Tacoma, encouraging more students to go on to college; it made environmental studies a centerpiece of its academic program because of its location on South Puget Sound; and it developed closer ties to Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM).

The military base has been a particular focus because thousands of soldiers are expected to return to the U.S. after the drawdown from Afghanistan, and nearly half plan to go back to school.

When she arrived in Tacoma in the summer of 2011, Friedman met with the JBLM base commander to talk about how the university could better serve those veterans transitioning to civilian life. About 10 percent of UW-Tacoma’s students are veterans.

One of the results was a program for military veterans who want to be startup entrepreneurs called VIBE, for Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship.

Shem Zakem served in the Army for six years before he was wounded in Iraq.

In December, he received his bachelor’s degrees from UW-Tacoma, completing a double major in computer engineering and computer science.

At 32, he is the first in his family to graduate from college. And through VIBE, he’s also an entrepreneur, breathing life into his idea of a network of vending machines to dispense and collect rechargeable batteries. “I’ve made connections I would never have made any other way,” he said.

VIBE director Phillip Potter said the program helps veterans with an entrepreneurial spirit find their way into the startup ecosystem, helped along by community mentors and local entrepreneurs.

If veterans are successful, they’re likely to hire other veterans, he said.

“We’re putting these men and women in a position to push the national economy forward,” said Potter, who was invited to the White House earlier this month to discuss the program. “There’s a lot of interest in our model,” he added.

‘Access and excellence’

Under Friedman’s leadership, the branch campus also created a program to get more Tacoma students to enroll in college, including guaranteed admissions for students with a 2.7 GPA and a score of at least 480 on the math and critical-reading sections of the SAT, said Cedric Howard, vice chancellor for student and enrollment services.

The campus has also made the most of a location that’s steeped in history.

Fifteen of its buildings date to the 1890s, when Tacoma was a fast-paced port town and the terminus of a transcontinental railroad. A grocery warehouse, a furniture factory, a paper and stationery store, a powerhouse — these buildings form the academic center of campus.

Later this fall, the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks that run through the middle of campus will reopen as the Prairie Line Trail, part of a 2.5-mile-long bike/pedestrian corridor.

Next year, the campus hopes to open a small law-school program of about 30 students.

Zeeck, of the Tacoma Law Foundation, said the law school would be aimed at nontraditional students, such as military veterans and working professionals. Its students would likely graduate in four years, rather than in three, and go to school year round.

Ana Mari Cauce, the provost of UW-Seattle and a close friend of Friedman’s, said the programs she championed helped invite more community involvement with the university, while still offering top-notch programs.

“She found a way to really do that part of the mission of public universities — which sometimes gets lost — bridging that divide between access and excellence,” Cauce said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.

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