Land grant university. Collaborative research partner. Polytechnic institution?
Officials at Washington State University Tri-Cities are looking to add “polytechnic” as a new descriptor for the Richland campus as it prepares to meet the future needs of students, the region and industries.
A draft plan charting the university’s future says a polytechnic approach would “create career-prepared professionals who learn while doing through capstone experiential learning and cooperative education and internships.”
Chancellor H. Keith Moo-Young said the same in the inaugural edition of the new Tri-Poly Currents monthly newsletter, saying “WSU Tri-Cities emphasizes the polytechnic ‘learning while doing’ approach in educating students while focusing on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines.”
The university has long emphasized its connections to industry and partners such as Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Hanford site contractors, as well as its focus on the sciences. The new approach means those attributes would be pushed further and, more importantly, used to sell the campus to prospective students.
“It is a philosophy of learning,” said WSU Regent and Tri-City resident Lura Powell. “I do think it will attract students, and that’s good for the Tri-Cities and the state.”
The university’s draft Academic Master Plan, released in late March for public comment until May 29, dedicates an entire portion of the report’s development proposal to the polytechnic approach. The document emphasizes there is no single definition for the term, and it would not detract from the broader WSU mission as a land grant institution and commitment to student excellence and research.
But it is something community and industry leaders called for, the report said. The polytechnic approach would require the university to partner with industry in the Mid-Columbia to increase job preparedness and ensure graduates are highly trained. More specifically, it would distinguish the campus from other universities.
“This distinction will convey a unique brand for (WSU Tri-Cities), providing a clear difference from other state universities and the basis for a marketing effort in a time of increasing competition from both private and public institutions,” the document said.
The use of the term “polytechnic” shouldn’t be read into too deeply, said WSU Tri-Cities spokesman Jeffrey Dennison. At the same time, it should be seen as a good direction for the university to take, as it pushes career preparation for students and ensures there are jobs ready for them on graduation.
Moo-Young was not available for comment Friday. Dennison passed along a comment from John Mancinelli, chief of staff and operations, that the polytechnic approach would be a new direction for the university and one Moo-Young committed to bring to the campus when he was hired about two years ago.
Other WSU campuses won’t use polytechnic to describe their missions, said Kathy Barnard, spokeswoman at the Pullman campus, noting that the term fits perfectly with what the Richland campus wants to become.
WSU Tri-Cities students have regularly interned for researchers and industry in the Tri-Cities. The Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, or BSEL, is a research facility on the campus resulting from a partnership between PNNL and the university. The soon-to-open Wine Science Center is the result of a yearslong relationship with the wine industry. The WSU system as a whole is more often seen as a place to pursue becoming an engineer or agricultural scientist rather than obtain a degree in political science or literature.
But taking a polytechnic approach to education would push WSU Tri-Cities beyond that reputation, Powell said, noting that her own undergraduate research experience was formative for her.
“It’s much more deliberate and broad-based. This isn’t just some percentage of the student body, this is engaging the entire student body,” she said. “Every student probably won’t (have an internship) but it will gradually create more and more who have.”
The University of Akron in Ohio also recently undertook a similar initiative, rebranding itself as “Ohio’s Polytechnic University” in a speech by the university’s president.
“Career-focused. Connected to industry. Experiential. Technology-infused. In both the sciences and the arts. It is what some have called the merger of the practical arts and the liberal arts,” Scott Scarborough said in a speech to the City Club of Cleveland.
Akron has struggled with enrollment in recent years. Increased competition for students and resources was part of the drive for the university’s new approach, Scarborough said.
The move was criticized by many alumni and Akron students, and some noted that it would potentially sever their ability to continue at the university.
“I saved for my son's education for 15 years. I wanted him to be a U of A graduate, not Ohio Polytechnic. He's a political science major — explain how that fits,” one woman commented on a post about the changes on the University of Akron Facebook page.
Polytechnic is a difficult term to define, said Phil Bailey, acting provost for California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo in California, and no one agrees on the same description.
Polytechnic schools provide a mindset instead of just a skill set, Bailey said. He drew a comparison to the chemistry lab courses he’s taught on his campus for the past four decades.
“The purpose isn’t to teach how to use instrumentation, it’s to teach how to use instrumentation in an intellectual way,” he told the Herald. “It’s about problem-solving.”
And it has been a great marketing tool, he said. The largely undergraduate university has no football team but offers numerous research opportunities, with more than half of Cal Poly San Louis Obispo’s research papers having undergraduate authors. More than 55,000 students apply to the school each year for one of 4,000 slots.
“We’re in a 23-campus system. We stand out because we’re polytechnic,” Bailey said.