Bills would bring doctoral programs to WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND -- If two bills co-sponsored by Tri-City legislators become law, Washington's public universities would be authorized to set up doctoral programs at their branch campuses, including at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

It doesn't look like it will change the way WSU does business, but another new development involving the national lab might.

The two identical bills -- Senate Bill 5315 and House Bill 1586 -- would give WSU and the University of Washington authority not only to issue doctorate degrees in Pullman and Seattle, but also at the smaller campuses in the state.

The bills have support from across the political and regional spectrum and are expected to pass.

Co-sponsors include Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, and Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, as well as several high-ranking Democrats from the west side. The legislation was requested by the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

"Expanding the branch campuses is the most cost-effective way to expand degree production," said Chris Thompson, director of state relations for the HEC Board. "The (campuses are) an established state investment and they're close to where the students already are."

The state needs to ramp up the number of doctoral degrees it awards, Thompson said. "We are 49th out of 50 states in the number of students enrolled in doctoral-level programs," he said.

However, while passage of the bills may trigger new offerings quickly at UW campuses -- according to several news reports -- the WSU official in charge of doctoral programs doesn't expect changes anytime soon.

"This bill authorizes us to do what we're already doing," said Howard Grimes, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school in Pullman.

WSU already allows doctoral students to do their research and course work at any campus that can support such work, Grimes said.

Students pursuing doctoral degrees in education, for example, get placed at campuses across the state, including in Richland.

And a number of students are working on doctoral degrees in science or engineering at the Tri-Cities campus. In total, about 20 doctoral students work and study here, said Vice Chancellor Dick Pratt.

That number may increase, but that would have nothing to do with the proposed bill, Grimes said.

"I spend a lot of time encouraging faculty in all locations to do Ph.D. level training," he said.

But the basic arrangement -- having the graduate school in Pullman and issuing all degrees from there -- won't change.

"We're not structured that way," Grimes said. "We've worked hard at being collaborative."

Currently, students can study in one place and still be part of the larger research community of the main campus, he said. Graduate and doctoral work depends greatly on interaction with other researchers.

"For there to be a stand-alone doctoral program (at a branch campus), you'd need 11 or 12 faculty, at least," he said. "Most would say you need 15 to 25."

The branch campuses now have about three to five instructors qualified to teach doctoral students in most fields, Grimes said.

With no money available to hire new faculty, no new programs are expected in Richland. But research opportunities for graduate and doctoral students will likely increase nonetheless, because of a new joint program with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Grimes has been working with PNNL to start a pilot program this fall, which would have more WSU students performing research at the lab.

Some students work there already, but the relationship "is not formalized," Grimes said. "We want to eliminate bureaucratic barriers so we have more of that going on."

Breaking down those barriers would have more effect than the authority to create new programs would.

"We feel the legislation has minimal impact on WSU," Grimes said.