Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane has invested well in human capital

Visions 30 years ago of having a public research university here now becoming reality

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Publisher’s Note: This is one of a collection of stories authored by business and civic leaders in Spokane in commemoration of the Journal’s 30th Anniversary in February 2016. Please click here or on the “Anniversary Issue” tag at the bottom of this story to read the others.

I came to Spokane in the early 1980s, so I have seen firsthand how education has evolved in this community over the last 30 years. When I arrived here, I was in my late 20s and had no intention of staying very long. The plan was to stay here with friends for a few months and then head back to either Boulder, Colo., or Berkeley, Calif., the places where my boyfriend and I were pursuing our doctorate degrees. We instead found ourselves splitting an assistant professor position at Eastern Washington University. One thing led to another and 30 years later we are both here, still friends, with jobs and children. I have Bloomsday T-shirts. He has a place at the lake. 

My list of things Spokane has done right with regard to education in the last 30 years is based on my personal experiences here; my professional life at Eastern Washington University, Gonzaga University and Washington State University; the state Legislature; and my training as an economist. 

To state my biases up front, I am an unabashed believer in what economists call human capital. The highest returns on investment, in my view, come from using resources so that people reach their potential, such as investing in young people from prekindergarten through higher education. 

Three things Spokane has done right:

First, we have invested in education. We respect and support our schools—from preschools to med schools. In the last 30 years, the nonprofit sector and the local media have embraced preventing child abuse and neglect and promoting early learning, and the business community has come to strongly support school levies. Higher education has also seen significant investment. 

WSU alone has put more than $200 million into facilities and biomedical research infrastructure on the Spokane campus since 1994. Ever since the WSU regents proclaimed WSU Spokane as the university’s health sciences campus in 2010, investment has stepped up. The university is going through an accreditation process to establish the state of Washington’s second public medical school, right here in Spokane, and has already hired a dean and new faculty members.  

Second, we have created a University District. The district addresses economic development issues and housing needs, and promotes smart urban growth, environmental restoration, and transportation improvements, connecting the core strengths of the educational institutions within it with regional economic drivers.

At the center of the University District is the Spokane River. Over the last 30 years, we’ve begun to embrace the river as a heritage, a powerful piece of the Northwest ecosystem. The complexity of cleaning up the river and protecting it has become a local government priority and a source of community pride, not just a federal or state requirement. With the river in the middle of the district, students from local health sciences programs see firsthand how their recreation-loving culture is tied to health and fitness. Taking the University District to the next level with research and commercialization of life sciences will bring even more attention to the area. 

Third, we have developed graduate and professional education. Momentum ’87 was a community discussion and strategy to improve the economic slump Spokane was experiencing. While private universities were in Spokane, and Eastern Washington University was in nearby Cheney, community leaders wanted a public university with graduate-level opportunities and a research component to be based in Spokane. The goal was to develop programs connected to health sciences, as training for many health professions increasingly required more clinical experience, and that experience could not be accessed in towns the size of Pullman or Cheney. Our campus, shared with EWU and others, meets that goal.

More recently, three significant changes have occurred on the WSU Spokane campus that will also have an impact on Spokane’s future:

•The opening of the new Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences Building and the consolidation of the College of Pharmacy in Spokane, making it the second college to be headquartered here, after the College of Nursing.

•The establishment of WSU’s third college headquartered in Spokane—the College of Medicine—and legislative approval and funding to establish the state’s second public medical school.

•The creation of a Spokane Teaching Health Center with Providence Health Care and Empire Health Foundation, which led to WSU’s decision to build an on-campus teaching health clinic where medical residents and students from various health disciplines will work together to treat patients.  

The Journal of Business has covered these changes thoroughly, fairly and competently. May your next 30 years be just as successful.

And may our city’s support of education continue. Every thriving community has a high-quality education component. Greater Spokane Incorporated’s goal of increasing the proportion of adults in Spokane County who attain postsecondary education from 40 percent to 60 percent in the next 10 years is indicative of the value we place on education. 

Here’s to Spokane: Near nature, near knowledge, nearly perfect.

Dr. Lisa Brown is chancellor of Washington State University Spokane and is a former legislator.

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