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In our view / WSU in Everett

Next challenge: Build trust

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The long quest to bring a major research university presence to Snohomish County cleared its highest hurdle so far on Thursday, when the state Senate gave final legislative approval to a process designed to put Washington State University in charge of the University Center of North Puget Sound.
It was hardly the last hurdle, however. Once the governor signs the legislation, Second Substitute Senate Bill 5636, work will begin on a new set of challenges.
The first is building trust between WSU and its new partners -- Everett Community College and the eight other colleges and universities with programs at University Center.
This is not a marriage of mutual consent. It was sought by WSU, at the behest of Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and other community leaders, and opposed by officials at Everett Community College, which houses and currently runs University Center.
Many of the other partners opposed it, too, arguing that a successful program that has grown to 500 students didn't need an overhaul. Their continued presence may depend, in part, on the approach WSU brings to its new leadership role. It's up to WSU President Elson Floyd now to put his spoken commitment to the region into action, leading a planning process that's transparent and collaborative. It must set University Center on a course for the robust growth in four-year degree opportunities that study after study has shown the region lacks.
That, of course, presents its own challenges, primarily financial. State funding for higher education has been slashed deeply in recent years, and will be again once lawmakers pass a 2011-13 budget. WSU has had to endure huge budget blows, and now must devote resources to fulfilling its pledge to bring engineering programs to Everett.
Facilities will be another challenge. The current space housing University Center is full, and the growth backers of this change envision will require more. Will University Center expansion take place on the EvCC campus, or will it grow elsewhere? In either case, it will require new state funding. The Legislature's understanding of that is implied in the bill approved Thursday.
Lawmakers bought themselves some time. A planning council composed of representatives from WSU, EvCC, other University Center partners and the community have until late next year to complete a strategic plan, with WSU assuming leadership of University Center by July 1, 2014.
For now, the most important capital for WSU to earn is the trust of its new partners. Reaching out to them should be high on President Floyd's to-do list.

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