John Oldham remembers what it used to be like in the neighborhood around what is now the University of Washington Tacoma campus.
He went to Max’s Pool Hall one day, and there in the entrance lay a dead man. Unfazed, people stepped over the body.
Oldham came from Gig Harbor to UWT on Thursday to hear from the pros at a forum on “The Urban University.”
In its 21st year downtown, UWT has plenty of successes to celebrate. But presenters at the forum also challenged it to increase its broad reach into the city’s life beyond academia.
Standing in the new William W. Philip Hall, sandwiched between restored buildings on the campus, Chancellor Patricia Spakes gave the quick history lesson.
“Bill Philip got a group of business leaders together and held them hostage, literally, until they put $1 million on the table to buy an option on the warehouses,” she said.
Dedicated as they surely were to academic excellence – and intent as they surely were on offering public college education to place-bound students – these leaders were not entirely altruistic.
Tacoma Mall, with acres of free parking patrolled by security guards, had sucked the retail life out of downtown.
The stretch of downtown Tacoma where the university now lives was a mash-up of strip joints, card rooms, cheap bars, worn-out shelters, dangerous parking garages and derelict buildings.
People who opened new businesses there were praised as brave pioneers when they came in and mourned as investors ahead of their time when they closed down.
Longtime business owners became civic activists, donors and volunteers as a matter of survival. The branch campus, they rightly thought, would spur redevelopment.
So Tacoma leaders lobbied the state Legislature to establish the 46-acre footprint for the campus. Those leaders insisted on a campus without walls, a campus that would invite residents, tourists, students and teachers to use and enjoy it.
All around the neighborhood, investors have responded by saving old buildings and putting up new ones. The museum district is safe. School of the Arts high school students go downtown alone, something many of their parents were never allowed to do. The area is perfumed with the smell of tasty restaurant meals.
Oh, yeah, and local students are getting their degrees at a public university in an affordable city.
There is more, of course.
UWT hires here and buys here, said University of Puget Sound economics professor Bruce Mann. Business, social services and government people call UWT faculty for advice and give UWT students opportunities to do research in the real world.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland said UWT is an example of the achievable for young people whose families have no history of higher education.
“It helps students who may not be college-bound imagine themselves as college students,” she said.
As executive director of United Way of Pierce County, Rick Allen is all about the community collaborating to solve tough problems. That’s how UWT was created, and now the college is part of the effort.
Members of a business class are helping the local United Way examine its business model. Students also call United Way for volunteer opportunities.
Students in a leadership class observe nonprofit boards and interject fresh ideas.
The majority of UWT grads remain in the area, growing their expertise locally and keeping it here.
Those are some advantages of an urban university, said keynote speaker Wim Wiewel, president of Portland State University.
Nationwide, urban campuses are putting a new emphasis on student engagement as part of the curriculum, he said. For professors, they are including community engagement in tenure requirements.
Think of the Center for Urban Waters, for example, as a place where UWT is plugged in.
There are more possibilities.
Think of teachers and students working on smoother transitions out of community colleges and tutoring programs.
Think of the university making better public use of the property it owns or has reserved for later use.
Think of collaborating with people and organizations on the Hilltop, now and as the university expands up the hill.
Think of amending the UW seal.
“Lux sit” it reads. “Let there be light.”
UWT is earning a stronger motto: “Grit sit.”
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/street