New UW alumni group wants louder voice in Olympia
With more state budget cuts looming, the University of Washington Alumni Association has formed a new nonprofit to advocate for support of higher education.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
With state funding for higher education on the chopping block again, the University of Washington's alumni have formed a group to try to harness Husky power to fight for higher-education support.
The new group, UW Impact, hopes to mobilize a "sleeping giant" — the 300,000 alumni of the UW — to get more involved in state politics.
UW Impact has also hired two heavy hitters, one from each side of the political aisle: Chris Vance, former chairman of the state Republican Party, and Christian Sinderman, a well-known Democratic consultant. The two (who are not UW grads) are paid political consultants, as well as members of the organization's leadership team.
UW Impact is a nonprofit, not a political-action committee. It won't back candidates or lobby the Legislature. And although it's concerned about the state budget, "our vision is much bigger than the next legislative session," said Eddie Pasatiempo, a past president of the UW Alumni Association.
UW Impact plans to begin by holding community meetings in all legislative districts in January, encouraging alumni to get to know their legislators and other political leaders.
"This is long overdue," Pasatiempo said.
Big cuts coming
Like most other state agencies, the UW is bracing for another round of steep cuts next year.
Under Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget, the school would lose $190 million over the 2011-13 biennium.
If a cut that large is adopted, the school would have lost half its state funding since 2008, said UW spokesman Norm Arkans.
Under the governor's proposal, about half the loss would be made up by an 11 percent increase in tuition in 2011 and 2012. But it still would leave a $91.4 million hole for the biennium — a 7 percent cut in state funding, Arkans said.
Although the state pays only a fraction of UW's overall budget, the money goes primarily to salaries for faculty and staff.
"We feel like if we don't act now to create a public movement in support of the UW and higher education, tomorrow may be too late," said Colleen Fukui-Sketchley, president of the UW Alumni Association.
Both publicly and privately, university administrators and deans have expressed frustration recently that state lawmakers don't understand the importance of a well-funded public research university.
Earlier this year, in hopes of underscoring its importance to the region's economy, the UW released a study that showed the school's economic impact on the state is $9.1 billion a year, and that it employs 29,000 people, or 6 percent of the entire Seattle labor force.
Public K-12 schools and human services, both of which receive big chunks of the state budget, have always had strong advocates in Olympia, Vance said. The university sends its president and lobbyists to Olympia but has never asked its alumni to be advocates.
And that has made it easy for legislators to say, "I never heard from anybody — no one said this was important" as a rationale for voting against higher-education proposals, said Vance.
Fukui-Sketchley said that when she told a couple legislators the alumni association was forming an advocacy group, their response was: "Where have you been? Now the sleeping giant awakens?"
The group earlier this week made its first pitch to alumni to get involved. Vance said that once UW Impact is organized, it could, for example, mobilize its members to call their legislators if a bill the UW deemed important needed some help to get passed.
Fukui-Sketchley said the group hasn't figured out how many of the newly elected legislators are UW alumni, but that in the past a greater percentage of the Legislature graduated from Washington State University than from the UW.
She emphasized the importance of the group's bipartisan underpinnings.
"Our alumni base is vastly diverse, and with that comes political diversity — which means that we are red, and we are blue, and thankfully red and blue make purple," she said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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