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Bellingham Herald Op-Ed: Alumni Must Come Together to Fight for Higher Education

UWAA President Colleen Fukui-Sketchley

UWAA President Colleen Fukui-Sketchley

Higher education in our state is at a crossroads. In one direction lies a path of necessary innovation, economic vitality and limitless opportunities for a citizenry growing by leaps and bounds. In the other, closed doors and minds, economic decline and mounting despair. Which road is taken will be determined by us: the citizens of the state of Washington.

For 150 years – through wars, the gaining of statehood, the market’s upticks and downturns -Washington’s public universities have enriched the lives of people throughout our state, nation and world. Since their founding, our state’s universities have been able to continually grow, thrive and evolve with critical financial support from the Legislature.

Not anymore.

That is why we – the leaders of our independent, nonprofit alumni associations, representing a combined 470,000 alums in the state of Washington, have come together in an unprecedented fashion – from Neah Bay to Clarkston – to become public advocates for higher education.

In recent years, a crippling financial crisis has led legislators to eliminate 30 percent of state funding for higher education and the proposed budget scenarios now under consideration would total more than a 50 percent cut. A recent Seattle Times article detailed the grim reality university presidents face and the devastating effects they foresee (“State university presidents paint grim picture on budget cuts,” Feb. 24).

The impact is severe: Fewer Washington students and families will be able to afford and have access to higher education. Hundreds of faculty and staff jobs will be cut. The years it takes to earn a degree could increase exponentially. Cuts of this magnitude could also mean elimination of entire programs that advance the careers of the future and devastate our ability to keep our best and brightest here at home. We cannot fathom a tomorrow in which our children are less educated in the state of Washington than the generations before them.

Just as dispiriting is the fact that this educational upheaval has been met with silence from the general public. Decisions being made during the 2011 legislative session will have lasting impacts on our children’s futures. Polls consistently show that Washington’s voters think our universities are important, but there has been little public outcry. No longer is it enough to be proud of our universities; the urgency of the moment requires each of us to proclaim the value of higher education and to say to our friends, neighbors, and most certainly our legislators, “Yes, we can still do anything in America, and our students will make it so.”

With this in mind, the alumni of the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University have come together like never before and are raising their voices to call attention to the challenges facing higher education and the need for the Legislature to step in and save our universities.

We are doing so with approaches that are part “new school,” such as employing social media in sophisticated ways, and part “old school,” such as holding community conversations in public spaces and homes across the state. In addition, the University of Washington Alumni Association has created UW Impact (uwimpact.org), an official advocacy organization for alumni.

The wellspring of enthusiasm since we launched these efforts has affirmed the importance of higher education in a dynamic, global economy – and we are just in time. Our aspirations include a desire to build a statewide coalition that recognizes the fact that this state and its universities will either rise or fall together.

College isn’t just a four-year experience. It sets students on a path that provides a lifetime of benefits for themselves, their families and our state. Colleges are engines of innovation, inspiration, and untold invention. If we are to help America “Win the Future” – the 21st-century call to arms used by both major political parties – then we need to retain the decades-strong strategic investment by the people of this state, and the world-class opportunities that exist on campuses in Bellingham, Pullman, Seattle and across our state.

About 470,000 alumni of UW, WSU and WWU in this state know this and our students know it, too. We understand the value, significance and inherent worth of higher education. Let’s make sure our elected officials in Olympia understand it as well. We recognize times are tough, but please know – without core state funding and strategic solutions for higher education, our future is most certainly at risk.

Colleen Fukui-Sketchley graduated from the University of Washington in 1994. Robert Williams graduated from Washington State University in 1979. Bill Boyd graduated from Western Washington University in 1982. The three are the presidents of the alumni associations of their respective universities.

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