When I first heard President Elson S. Floyd wanted to merge the College of Liberal Arts with the College of Sciences, I was appalled. I thought it was nonsense and a blatant symbol of the demise of the American education system. Now in retrospect, I find myself laughing at how easy it is for Americans to shut down an idea before ever giving it a chance, like Congress Republicans with President Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act or the Washington voter shutdown on candy and soda taxes last year. In both examples, a dire situation needed to be addressed, and the solutions proposed by innovators and leaders were basically dead on arrival because no one wanted to listen.
Due to statewide and national economic crises, public higher education will continue to walk down a long, grimy road with no signs of relief ahead. While my impulse reaction to President Floyd’s proposal was intensely negative, I now see a good president making a bold but smart decision for the long-term wellbeing of the school.
First, let’s talk about where exactly to place the blame for the now desperate situation our school is in. According to Gov. Chris Gregoire, it is certainly not the state.
“This is not due to something state government has or hasn’t done or to excessive salaries or to fraud, waste and abuse. This crisis, which began on Wall Street, has manifested in much the same way in nearly every state across the country,” she wrote in a recent email to state workers.
Though I resent her attempts to pass the buck, her statement is more or less true. However, it does leave out a huge aspect of this complex economic environment – declining voter approval for government at all levels. As a result of a long series of poorly executed political strategies, like the debt ceiling on a national level or the failing 520 toll bridge project in our state, citizens are becoming more resistant to trusting their elected officials to accomplish anything effectively. Last year, Washington residents negligently voted down taxes on indulgence items like soda and candy because they no longer have faith in politicians to manage those funds appropriately.
Our state and nation are now facing a long-term transition from reliance on public services like the United States Postal Service to full privatization – a transition which does not actually make any sense considering the first domino to fall in this series of events, as Gov. Gregoire reminds us, was caused by the unrestricted nature of big, private companies. Taxpayers with no faith in their elected officials would rather see education, health care and mailing services managed by self-serving, risk-taking entrepreneurs.
Overall, our problem at this point seems to be pessimism fueled by distaste for the many flaws of human nature. We would all prefer to stand still and do nothing rather than entrust anyone else to guide us in a new direction. Hopefully by recognizing the absurdity of this mentality, we can find a way to generate support for the budgetary proposals of our well-intentioned university president. Cuts need to be made somewhere, and if we are going to continue to pay President Floyd’s salary we must be more willing to trust in his insight and expertise. Eight of the PAC-12 universities already have combined humanities and science programs, so we are among the minority in stubbornly insisting they remain separate.
If this merger does occur, we can certainly expect that current students and professors will be quite inconvenienced, but these are necessary casualties to achieve budgetary stability well into the future. One of the primary hesitations against the merger is a fear of failed integration – that science faculty and students are too different from their liberal arts counterparts to work together cohesively or divide resources. According to Evergreen reporters, a survey sent out to College of Liberal Arts faculty members captured a less than ten-percent approval rating for the merger. Honestly, this anxiety seems quite fallacious; the situation will go exactly as well as both colleges make it. If faculty in either college approaches the merger from a pessimistic, hostile mindset, the result is going to be a toxic work environment.
However, to ensure the transition goes smoothly, I would like to see a very checked and balanced hierarchy of administrators established for the new college. President Floyd has stated that Dean of the College of Sciences, Daryll Dewald, will likely take on the lead position in the new college, but administrators in the CLA will also need to hold a substantial amount of authority in making decisions for their own departments.
Another consideration to be made in advance is the ASWSU senate composition bill that passed in last year’s election. The bill structures seats in the senate by undergraduate college as opposed to the current system by area of residence. If consolidation continues to be our strategy for managing budget cuts, seats will need to be further divided by area of study to allow equal representation. The redistricting process will begin with the 2012 ASWSU election this spring and go into effect for the 2012-2013 academic year, likely simultaneously as the CLAS merger occurs. In fact, allotting more seats to the combined college could substantially ease the tensions of this merger.
Essentially, President Floyd’s plan is to phase out (or minimize) the programs here that do not generate revenue or produce prominent successes and accomplishments. Students should not be paying extreme tuition costs for WSU’s most subpar programs, so it makes sense to redirect the majority of our efforts toward top areas of study. WSU will cease to be a school of general studies where high school graduates can meander in without any real plan. Instead, it will evolve into a stronger school with limited specialties that can attract more funding, turn out more impressive accomplishments and garner more support from taxpayers and government officials in response to our successes.