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Tacoma's degrees of separation

Welcome, returning and new scholars, to Tacoma’s groves of academe – or, in the absence of suitable groves, the concrete stairways and asphalt parking lots of academe.

You embark upon a year of scholarly pursuits – or pursuits of other less noble but more entertaining activities – at a time of considerable question over the purpose, mission and status of American institutions of higher education.

Are they temples of learning and inquiry, nurturing and molding the leaders, citizens and innovators of tomorrow? Or are they holding pens for those who haven’t decided what to do with their lives or who shouldn’t be inflicted on the real world just yet? Remedial academies for students to catch up on all the stuff that should have been learned in high school, but didn’t? Research institutions with faculty and students providing cheap labor? Economic development engines for a region? One of the last true competitive and comparative advantages the U.S. has left in the global economy? Glorified vocational-training centers? Football teams with trade schools attached? Drinking establishments with books?

All of the above?

Fretting about college is an activity as old as higher education. Groucho Marx in the 1932 film “Horse Feathers,” as the new president of a struggling college: “Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.” Professors: “But, professor, where will the students sleep?” Groucho: “Where they always sleep: In the classroom.”

It’s been an especially popular pastime of late, in part because of several recently published books. “The Great Brain Race” by Ben Wildavsky discusses the intense and growing global competition among colleges to attract students and faculty, even if that means building campuses halfway around the planet. “The Five-Year Party” by Craig Brandon charges that American colleges are increasingly expensive, booze-besotted and education-free – among other complaints.

Those aren’t – you should pardon the expression – academic topics. Colleges without the resources to expand their empires and burnish their brand name are left wondering how they’ll compete against those with the endowments and high profiles to do so. Students who are accumulating massive amounts of debt are left wondering why they’re chasing after expensive degrees for which there are no jobs.

These aren’t academic discussions for Tacoma either. Almost without planning or notice Tacoma (along with Pierce County environs) has developed into something of a college town. Beyond the obvious three – University of Washington Tacoma, Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Puget Sound – there are the community and vocational-technical colleges, local programs of state schools based elsewhere, the schools with programs or branches at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the private nonprofit and for-profit adult schools (City University, University of Phoenix), and others.

What’s missing from this list, and what Tacoma isn’t likely to get anytime soon (not from the state, anyway, given the squeeze on budgets to support what it has) is a big research institution along the lines of the UW in Seattle. Those are the sorts of schools that can pull in millions of dollars in government and corporate research money and that tend to be big generators of the ideas, technologies and entrepreneurs who go on to start new companies, create jobs and keep the economy thriving.

Still, there’s enough academic critical mass to constitute a significant economic presence locally, what with the money spent on faculty, staff, equipment and facilities and, umm, beer.

So what’s Tacoma to do with this largesse of higher ed? Can it market that concentration of studiousness to promote both the individual institutions as well as the city as a college town (something Seattle, despite the size and number of its schools, has never done)? Could that image attract more students, more institutions and programs? What can be done to channel the brainpower of those who graduate from the region’s schools into ventures and projects that propel Tacoma’s economy? Is there a way for Tacoma to tap into the coming changes that globalization, and cost, will drive in higher education?

All worthy questions for students and civic leaders to ponder as another school year starts. For all the problems higher ed faces today, there is also considerable opportunity.

It would be a shame to see that opportunity squandered, either for individuals or the community, leaving both to commiserate with John Blutarsky, in that insightful cinematic analysis of American higher ed “Animal House,” as he laments the trajectory of his academic career: “Seven years of college down the drain.”

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com

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