WSU is getting ready to transform its Tri-Cities campus. Here’s what $30 million is buying

A new $30 million building at Washington State University Tri-Cities could play a key roll in reversing declining enrollments.

“The academic building is truly going to be transformational for this campus and this community,” WSU President Kirk Schulz told the Herald during a Richland visit on Wednesday.

The building is expected to add a dozen laboratory classrooms, two 95-seat lecture halls and a central gathering area on the north Richland campus. Construction is expected to start in March.

Earlier Wednesday, Schulz spoke to about 60 members of the faculty and students about the state of the WSU system, including its fiscal health.

He said the school is back in the black for the first time in six years, but he cautioned that the university needs to find new money before it can hope to continue growing.

In 2017 Schulz announced a system-wide cost-cutting campaign to stop the school from hemorrhaging $30 million a year.

Each campus and college was told to trim their budgets by 2.5 percent each year for three years. While the academic side reached its goal a year early, Schulz said he’s aware it did not come without a cost.

WSU Schulz visit
President Kirk Schulz of Washington State University shares a light moment with a faculty member during his town hall meeting Wednesday morning at the Tri-Cities branch campus in Richland. Watch videos at: Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

“I understand that we don’t have as many colleagues that we need at the faculty level and that everybody needs additional resources, but I equate this to paying off our credit cards,” he said. “We got back to zero, so the key thing is we don’t owe, but what we can’t do is go back on a spending spree.”

The $7.8 million the university now has after those cuts will be used to fill positions left empty and buy items the departments need.

And Schulz said he is looking for new funding, whether its from growing enrollment, increasing donations or developing other revenue sources to keep growing.

He said he’s heard that laboratories and existing equipment need to be improved, and there needs to be more teaching assistants for graduate students in the liberal arts and social sciences.

This is in addition to needing to renovate buildings, improve access to the campus and update the emergency alarm system, he said.

“You can look at this and say, ‘Well, are we doing anything?’” he said. “I think it’s important as I go around and do these talks to recognize and see the common themes that are coming across, whether it’s campuses or colleges. A lot of the financial challenges are the ones that come up again, again and again.”

Aiming for more students

While the university reported record enrollment this year, it was largely because of growth in its online program.

Many of the other campuses saw small growth or slight declines. WSU Tri-Cities continued a downward trend, starting the year with 28 fewer students than it had last year.

But university officials had expected worse. Chancellor Sandra Haynes had built the budget around a possible 10 percent decline, or the loss of nearly 180 students.

The conservative estimate let them put some more money aside, said Maegan Murray, the public relations coordinator for WSU Tri-Cities.

With the additional space offered by the new academic building, they expect to be able to step up recruitment efforts.

The building will have more space for physics, biology, chemistry, geology and anatomy and physiology classes.

Much of the cost is being covered by the state Legislature.

Recruitment efforts will focus on local high schools. Schulz said he wants to turn WSU Tri-Cities into a destination campus.

They hope to position themselves as the only four-year university in the area, and work through their recently reforged partnership with Columbia Basin College to create a strong pipeline of students.

The goals are still being hammered out, said Murray. The campus is in the process of putting together a six-year strategic plan that will include how much they want to grow.

Athletics remains a drain

When the university set out on its cost-cutting campaign, the athletics department made up $13 million of the debt.

They believe that will drop to $7 million this year, and while that is an improvement, the loss has stayed static for two years.

“I think there was a sense that ... athletics could do whatever they wanted to with no accountability whatsoever,” he said. “We have a plan over the next several years that it has to get to zero.”

To stay as a member of the Pac-12, the university needs to offer a certain number of programs. But leaving the organization, could lead to losing a source of revenue, he said.

Schulz said the athletics department is working hard to raise money through fundraising. In his previous position at Kansas State University, it was often a question whether a donation would go to the sports program or academic programs that hasn’t been the case with WSU.

The athletics budget is available online and they are doing public reviews of where they are compared to spending.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.