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WSU History and Evolution to a Statewide System

Washington State University: The People’s University, 1890-2020

Who could have imagined the bright future that awaited Washingtonians in 1890 when Governor Elisha P. Ferry signed legislation creating an agricultural college and science school that led to the establishment of WSU on a wind-swept hilltop in Pullman, Washington?

From those early days, when the Washington Agricultural College and School of Science consisted of a one story, thirty-six by sixty-foot structure, Washington State University has evolved to become one of the nation’s premier land-grant universities, a statewide enterprise of more than 31,000 students, 6,000-plus employees, and a nearly $400 million annual research operation. The University’s ten degree-granting academic colleges offer almost 250 undergraduate and graduate degrees, with many academic programs top-ranked nationally.

That the University has evolved from its humble roots to become a valued partner in growing the state’s economy and improving the quality of life for its residents is testimony to the achievements of the faculty, researchers, staff, and administrators who have worked to make the dream established 130 years ago an ongoing reality.

Along the path to achieving a remarkable record of public service, WSU has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to the land-grant principle of providing access to higher education—often acting in advance of its peers in this regard. For example, the first student of color attended WSU in 1906, when Ihei Yamauchi enrolled to study civil engineering. The College of Veterinary Medicine graduated its first African American student in 1920—a time during which few African Americans attended colleges in the U.S., let alone a veterinary college. Similarly, the first woman graduated from the veterinary college in 1933, an era in which fewer than four percent of women in the country completed four years of college or more.

Looking back, the University’s progress can perhaps best be summarized by reviewing its major achievements on the basis of four major stages of development.

The Early Days

The fledging school opened its doors in 1892 to 59 students who reflected the egalitarian principles set out in the Morrill Act that created the nation’s land-grant institutions. The students were not from wealthy families. Instead, they were the sons and daughters of farmers, laborers, and shopkeepers, representatives of America’s working and middle classes.

WSU’s third president, Enoch A. Bryan, who served as president from 1893 to 1915, set the direction for the new college to become a higher education institution with a comprehensive curriculum, expanding its academic breadth beyond agriculture and science to include disciplines such as pharmacy, veterinary medicine, and the liberal arts. The effort culminated in the renaming of the school to the State College of Washington, or WSC, in 1905.

A Period of Growth

The period between 1915 and 1945 can best be characterized as a period of growth for the college, both in academics and student life.

In 1917, under the direction of President Ernest O. Holland, five colleges (agriculture, home economics, mechanic arts and engineering, sciences and arts, and veterinary science) and four schools (education, mines, music and applied design, and pharmacy) were created, key steps toward eventual designation as a university. Similar growth occurred in campus facilities, as modern laboratories, classrooms, and dining facilities were constructed.

The college obtained a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and best known national honorary society, in 1929, recognition of WSC’s commitment to the liberal arts as well as to practical education.

Enrollment during the 30-year period rose and fell in tandem with the country’s economic fortunes, reaching a record of 4,035 students in 1940, only to fall steadily as World War II engulfed the nation, eventually dropping to 1,530 students in September 1945.

Achieving University Status

With the end of World War II and the return of military veterans from overseas, enrollment ballooned to more than 6,000 students beginning in the late 1940s. The increase in students spurred a period of substantial growth on the Pullman campus that included construction of a new library, expanded faculty research, and the establishment of general education requirements in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

The maturation of the college was formally recognized on September 1, 1959, when WSC was renamed Washington State University. The new name recognized the reality that WSC featured multiple colleges offering both undergraduate and graduate studies, increasingly notable research, and a growing role in addressing the needs of the state.

The growth curve accelerated from the mid-60s to the mid-80s. Enrollment increased by more than 50 percent from 1967 to 1985, to 16,500 students. Research grants mushroomed from $11 million to $68.5 million during the same period, a reflection of the priority placed on faculty research and scholarship. Areas of academic emphasis ranged from veterinary medicine to the biological sciences, nursing, the humanities, and social sciences.

Expanding Access to Education Statewide

The reach of WSU’s mission expanded significantly in 1989, when the University’s statewide campus system was established under former WSU President Samuel Smith in response to a request from the state government for Washington State University and the University of Washington to offer education at multiple locations around the state to serve place-bound and job-bound students. WSU located campuses in Vancouver, the Tri-Cities (Richland), and Spokane, with Spokane being a cooperative venture with Eastern Washington University. Creation of new WSU learning centers located statewide and the extended degree programs further expanded access to the University.

The three regional campuses originally offered upper-division classes only and thus began as destinations for transfer students, which necessitated establishing strong relations with local community colleges—a robust partnership that continues today. As enrollment grew throughout the 1990s, the campuses gained greater flexibility to serve the needs of the communities in which they were located. As an example, responding to community wishes, WSU Vancouver welcomed its first freshman class in fall 2006. WSU Tri-Cities followed suit in fall 2007. In 2011 the Spokane campus was designated by the University’s Board of Regents as WSU Health Sciences Spokane, and the campus now is predominately focused on professional education and health research.

A campus in Everett was added in 2014 to meet the higher education needs of the north Puget Sound . WSU Everett remains a transfer campus. Instructional sites now also exist in Bremerton, Yakima, and Walla Walla.

In parallel with the development of these campuses, in the 1990s WSU created a distance degree program through which students anywhere could earn a University degree by enrolling in courses for which lectures had been videotaped and mailed to the student. This program evolved into the internet-based Global Campus, which is the sixth campus in the WSU system. The WSU Global Campus, through its online programs, extends the University’s land-grant mission worldwide to those who increasingly require a high level of flexibility while pursuing a quality education.

During the past decade, WSU’s impact has reached unprecedented levels. Records have been set in enrollment, fundraising, and research expenditures. The University completed 30 major construction projects from 2007 to 2015, including one of the world’s most technologically advanced wine science centers at WSU Tri-Cities and the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at WSU Pullman.

In one of the most historic achievements in WSU’s history, the Washington state legislature in 2015 granted approval for the University to establish a medical school on the WSU Spokane Health Sciences campus. Adhering to the land-grant tradition, the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine seeks to expand access to health care in under-served communities across Washington and increase the ability of Washingtonians to earn a medical degree without leaving the state.

Planning for the Future

Shortly after beginning his tenure as WSU’s 11th president on June 13, 2016, current WSU President Kirk Schulz announced the Drive to 25, a system-wide initiative designed to elevate WSU to recognized status as one of the nation’s top 25 public research universities. The objectives of the Drive to 25 are guiding decisions about institutional goals, priorities, and resource allocations affecting the University’s teaching, research, and service mission. As such, the Drive to 25 served as a roadmap for the creation of the 2020-2025 WSU system plan.

The 2020-2025 WSU System Strategic Plan

President Schulz and then Provost Daniel Bernardo appointed a 24-member task force made up of faculty, staff, and students from throughout the system to lead the planning process. The president and provost co-chaired the group, the Strategic Planning and Institutional Effectiveness Council (SPIEC), which met monthly to guide development of the plan and to ensure ongoing input from the entire University community and WSU stakeholders.

The process of creating the first comprehensive strategic plan that encompasses the WSU system has included significant interactive involvement by WSU faculty, staff, and students system-wide as well as alumni, community partners, and other University stakeholders. Input gathering occurred through participation in open listening sessions, online postings, mass digital communications, and two major University events attended by a total of more than 1,200 participants.