A who’s-who group of business and civic leaders, headed by Bill Gates Sr., is calling for the University of Washington to step up its game and admit more in-state students and compete more aggressively for top faculty talent.
In turn, the state needs to do a better job of funding the university to help it become a stronger engine for economic growth.
The report, “Washington Futures,” was drafted by a 21-member committee that included Gates, Microsoft General Counsel and Executive Vice President Brad Smith, former U.S. Sen. Dan Evans, Seattle attorney Judith Runstad and San Francisco Giants Chairman emeritus and former Microsoft legal counsel William Neukom.
Gates, a former UW regent, will present the 50-page report to the regents board at its monthly meeting Thursday.
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The group lays out a case for the state to put more money into higher education, because “reinvesting in higher education is the most powerful way to fuel our state’s economy and continue drawing the best and brightest people to our state,” the report says.
“In a nutshell, the university needs to step up its role as an engine for economic growth for the state,” said Smith, of Microsoft. “That, in turn, means the state needs to step up its support for the university.”
The report also calls attention to the low level of state support to public four-year institutions. The state funds higher education, in real dollars, at about the same level it did 20 years ago, even though the overall size of the state’s budget has nearly tripled and Washington’s four-year schools now serve about 34,000 additional students.
This year, for the first time in several years, the Legislature appropriated additional money for higher education — a move that some consider a turning point. The state had been cutting budgets during the recession.
Smith said committee members want the UW to grow in size and accept more students, especially from Washington.
The number of in-state students who attend the Seattle campus has not changed much in recent years, although both the Bothell and Tacoma branch campuses are growing. The total enrollment at the Seattle campus last autumn was 42,570, which included 27,838 undergraduates.
The UW students of the future will also come from an increasingly diverse population, Smith said, and “the university needs to adapt to meet those needs.”
The committee didn’t specify how many more students the UW should accept or which campus should take them, but Smith said previous studies have identified a gap of about 6,500 — the difference annually between the number of Washington residents who earn a college degree and the number required to fill the state’s job openings. That’s also close to the number of undergraduate degrees produced at the UW each year, about 7,700.
“That doesn’t mean the entire gap is something that should be filled by a single institution or a single campus, but it helps to frame the issue,” Smith said. “We’re basically short by the entirety of the University of Washington.”
Smith said the UW also has to do a better job of competing for top faculty and research talent, which will also require more state money. “It must pay market rates,” he said. “It is in real danger of losing in that race for faculty talent.”
Most of the recommendations echo points that UW leaders have made for years — for example, the importance of continuing to give robust financial aid to low-income students, and amending the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program so the university can charge higher rates for some degrees without causing financial woes for GET.
The report also highlights the UW’s role in product development and commercialization, an area Gates said he’s especially interested in promoting.
Last year, he said, the UW helped launch 17 new companies; overall, it has successfully spun out more than 270 companies. “This is good for the university, good for the students,” Gates said.
The report calls for increasing the production of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees by at least 15 percent, with an emphasis on computer science. The UW awarded 3,861 degrees in STEM disciplines in 2012 — nearly half of all STEM degrees produced by public institutions in the state.
Smith said the futures committee was instigated by Gates. “I’m one of many people who got a call from Bill, and were asked to be part of this,” Smith said. “He’s hard to say ‘no’ to.”
The committee’s work wasn’t funded by anyone, and the cost of producing and printing the report was borne by the UW.
Said Gates: “We’re looking at universities today in somewhat different ways than we were looking at them five years ago. We said, let’s have a committee of thoughtful and devoted members or alums, and that’s where the futures committee came from.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.