Western must reflect state's changing demographics, now and in the future


Rep. Jason Overstreet of the 42nd District in Lynden is dead wrong in calling for the resignation of Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University. What Dr. Shepard said - what he really said - is exactly what all of us on the campus leadership team have been saying for many years. To continue our success as the state's premier regional university we must make sure that our faculty and student population reflect the population demographics of our state, not just today, but in the years to come.

My history with Western goes back more than 50 years. My mother, brother and I all went to Western. It is easy for me to remember when (what was then) Western Washington State College reached out to the underserved Dutch population in Lynden and northern Whatcom County, including many of the people Rep. Overstreet serves today. We remember supporting and recruiting the Native American population in places like Marietta, Everson, Swinomish and on the upper Skagit River. And, after the fall of Saigon, Western was one of the first universities to make special efforts to educate immigrant children from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Many of these graduates have gone on to become leaders in our state and country, more than returning the "investment" the state made in them.

Let me say emphatically that Western never judges a student application based on race or ethnic background, and never will. But we do recognize that as the state population demographics shift and change, we must prepare to serve the needs of all our state's young adults, not just for their sake, but for the sake of our state's economic and social future.

What do those changing demographics look like? President Shepard's publicized remarks alluded to them in a general way, but let me give you a hard number or two to make the reality clear. In Washington's K-12 public schools from 1986 to 2012, the Latino/a population increased 538 percent, the Asian/Pacific Islander population increased 126 percent and the black population increased 61.5 percent. In that same timespan, the white student population declined 2.2 percent.

Add in the fact that Washington's high school graduation rates have been going down and you reach an obvious conclusion: our state must educate a more diverse population prepared to drive our economy and ready to take advantage of the opportunities that should be every American's birthright. So, this is not an issue of keeping white students out of college, but preparing our growing diverse populations for success as well.

Nor is this an issue of partisan politics. During my many years in public office I was the second highest Republican "vote getter" in the history of our state. I will stand by the principles of President Ronald Reagan when he said, "Education and information are the oxygen of the modern age. They seep through the walls topped by barbed wire and waft across electrified borders."

There is tremendous competition for dollars in Olympia today, and in higher education. The state coffers are shrinking while the need is growing, and the great social and economic benefits that higher education provides go inadequately realized. If Western is to continue to serve Washington, our elected officials need to step up to the plate as advocates, not critics.

WWU was built by people like Senators and Representatives Ernest Leonard, Caswell Farr, Chuck Lind, Fred Veroske, Frank Atwood and many other Republicans who teamed up with supportive Democratic seatmates to provide for the finest quality of higher education we could afford. They reached out to kids from every walk of life and invited them to share in Western's wealth of knowledge. Recently Sen. Doug Erickson and Rep. Vince Buys have been helpful at nearly every turn of the road, and we are grateful for their support.

As the second largest employer in Whatcom County - and the educator and trainer of many employed elsewhere - I would think that Rep. Overstreet would be a supporter of Western's efforts to ensure education and prosperity to all our state's children, regardless of their race, religion or background.

The fact is that President Shepard is right. Because Western belongs to the people of Washington it must reflect the population demographics of our state, today, and in the future. That is the road to continued success for Western Washington University, and for the state of Washington as well.


Ralph Munro is a trustee of Western Washington University and served five terms as Washington's Secretary of State.

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