Whatcom Magazine

WWU an economic, educational, social force in Whatcom County

Western Washington University students enjoy commencement services June 14, 2014.
Western Washington University students enjoy commencement services June 14, 2014. FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

It encompasses 212 acres, with more parking spaces than downtown Bellingham. Its 15,000 students, nearly 1,200 permanent staff members and more than 900 part- or full-time faculty members, together, are a mass of humanity nearly equal in number to the population of Lynden and Blaine combined.

On the basis of size, alone, 117-year-old Western Washington University qualifies as a no-brainer iconic feature of Whatcom County.

“It’s a little city, in a way,” says Sue Sharpe, a Western alumna, trustee, and chair of the advisory committee assisting the search for Western’s next president, to replace Bruce Shepard, who plans to retire at the close of the academic year.

But mere size doesn’t fully account for Western’s local impact. Western has more than 107,000 alumni, and it sometimes seems they all decided to settle in Whatcom County.

It’s extremely well-respected, not just in the state but in the country.

Sue Sharpe, WWU trustee

Sharpe, the executive director of Chuckanut Health Foundation, is a typical example. She grew up in Ohio and finished her first year of college there, but she had spent summers in the Northwest and a visit to Bellingham convinced her to change schools. She graduated from Western twice, with a bachelor’s degree in speech communications in 1977 and a master’s in business administration seven years later, and made Bellingham her home.

Just as many students who attend Western choose to stay here, attracted by the county’s natural beauty and strong sense of community, likewise many business people choose Whatcom County as their base of operation because of its beauty, cultural amenities, and its “university town” educational opportunities for themselves and their employees, Sharpe says.

Western’s appeal, in part, reflects its lustrous reputation. The school wins consistent high ratings from U.S. News & World Report, which calls Western the best public, master’s-granting university in the Northwest.

Recently, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine listed Western 89th among the 100 “best values” in public colleges in the country. Western has appeared several times on the list, which cites four-year colleges that combine outstanding education with economic value.

Western, in other words, wins notice in the world of academia.

21-Student-to-faculty ratio

“It’s extremely well-respected, not just in the state but in the country,” Sharpe says.

She credits Western’s success to its high-caliber faculty and students, and, with a 21-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, its “student-centered” education. The approach benefits the students as well as the public and private employers looking for new staff members.

“They really value the well-rounded liberal arts and sciences background that Western students graduate with,” Sharpe says.

Western’s strong reputation also benefits the school, she says, because search consultants say exceptional candidates will be interested in becoming Western’s 14th president.

“Our challenge will be finding the right fit,” Sharpe says.