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Sunday, September 29, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Stymied: How small minds are hurting WSU and UW

They don't call them our state's two premier research institutions for nothing.

Washington State University and the University of Washington are two hot spots of energy and promise in an otherwise troubled and listless state economy. Why both the state Legislature and the Seattle City Council find ways to limit the resources of one or both is a mystery worth exploring.

At WSU, the foreboding about further cutbacks from the Legislature are real. The talk is of limiting student admissions, closing the doors to otherwise capable students. The statistics are clear about in-state students and their benefits to the greater good. College graduates from the state tend to stay in the state, and contribute.

And at WSU, new programs are unfolding that show directly the way higher learning bounces back into the life of our state and region.

A new Center for Integrated Systems Biology promises to be one of the most innovative concepts in the country. The university is involved in a safe-foods initiative with peer institutions in Japan, both to achieve new levels of food safety and help the state's agriculture. Another interesting idea is the development of a river master engineering curriculum to produce men and women who understand river channeling, fish ladders and river stewardship. WSU and the University of Idaho are also cooperating on research on security of power grids.

Food safety, salmon and water, security of our power. Doesn't that sound beneficial to our quality of life?

Yet, "the Legislature must break the chain of decreasing funding while increasing enrollment," WSU President V. Lane Rawlins said at a conference last week. He knows. He has been telling parents their children, with good GPAs and SATs, can't get in this year.

At UW, the issue is closer to home but no less distressing. The university wants to expand into the surrounding neighborhood but finds itself confronting local activists and a majority of the Seattle City Council.

On this page, we've agreed with Mayor Greg Nickels that the city should lift the lid on UW leasing in the U District and ease provisions that compel the university to spell out 10 years in advance all its building plans. The current lid keeps the UW to no more than 550,000 square feet in most of the U District. It's not as if the U District couldn't use some help.

"It's awful," said Nickels last week. "If you are a student, taking your parents through the U District is just awful." But what about the vocal opposition to lifting the lid?

"We've got to stop listening to the loudest voices," Nickels said. "I'm sure you've heard from the council members on this — the six cranky ones."

Beyond the council are the perennial activists who see the UW as the bad neighbor. Their views were presented in full on these pages last week ("UW's supporters should listen to the neighborhood," guest commentary, Sept. 25). I urge you to read them. I find those arguments both arrogant and ignorant.

Have we forgotten what the U in the U District stands for? No one, from the mayor to this opinion page, is arguing for free rein for any developer. That response distorts what the UW and the city could do together. But instead, we are clogged into inaction and made small by the least visionary of us.

Over the past three weeks, this column has been exploring the penalties of inaction in a sliding economy. The research institutions, built and given to the public for the education of our children, are too important to let slide. I know — they come at us with a tin cup every year, and we have to make choices between higher education and the universe of need.

But a grander message is being lost over issues of administration failings or land-use debates.

In Pullman last week, with the fall coming down like a smile, there was too much energy and excitement to bottle it up in the length of a day. The place was jumping with the electricity of optimism. If we continue to take the universities for granted, let the scholars go and turn away our kids, we should be ashamed.

James Vesely's e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com.

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