For the first 16 years of University of Washington Tacoma’s life it was a two year institution for community college students to further their education. Its identity was as an echo of the UW Seattle; seemingly not a full fledged entity of its own.
However, the UW system had bigger plans for UWT. In 2006, UWT started admitting freshman. That year student enrollment was 1,784. By 2015, enrollment had nearly tripled to 4,629. Current projections see an enrollment of 7,000 in five years. Growth has been so steady that the school anticipates outgrowing their current space by academic year 2018-19.
UWT’s award winning campus of converted industrial buildings in downtown Tacoma is both stunning and iconic. It conducts meaningful research. The school has an annual $210 million economic impact on the South Puget Sound region and has been measurably raising the education level of the area.
Yet, despite all that UWT has to offer, it maintains an undeservedly low profile. It remains a mere echo of UW Seattle. A satellite without a strong identity of its own.
How to fix that? Athletics.
Former UW Seattle President Michael Young once said that a university athletic program serves as the “front porch” of a university.
Want to forge stronger campus-wide emotional identification with the school? Found an athletic program. Want alumni and others supporters to have a life long connection to the school and fellow alumni? Found an athletic program. Want a higher profile in the local community, with potential applicants, and perhaps even with faculty? Found an athletic program.
The largest barrier to founding an athletic department is expense. NCAA Division II is a logical start because it is relatively inexpensive to compete at that level.
To look at what such a program would cost, we need only look to nearby Central Washington University. CWU has a Division II athletic program which competes in football among other sports. As of 2012, CWU Athletics Department cost the school about $2.9 million a year. That year, the State paid $1.6 million and another $1.06 million came from student fees. At the moment, CWU assesses a mandatory student athletics fee of $56.
About $2.9 million a year to run an athletic department would be a big investment for UWT. It would represent an increase of about 5% of UWT’s total expenditures based on the 2014 numbers. It would probably require a little money from the State and a little money from the students.
There is also the issue of athletic department facilities. Fortunately, UWT is located only a short walk away from the Tacoma Dome, so no need to build an athletics venue. Also, suitable golf, basketball, baseball, softball, tennis, etc. practice facilities already exist in and around Tacoma.
To pay for the needed athletic facilities UWT cannot find existing in the community, perhaps it could take out a loan from mother in Seattle. UW has an internal lending program recently used to fund $200 million of the $250 million cost of Husky Stadium’s renovation. The cost for UWT’s few needed facilities would be loose change by comparison.
Ten or more years down the road, when UWT has an enrollment north of 10,000, it could make the jump up to the higher competition and higher profile of Division I (FCS).
Nearby Division I (FCS) schools Eastern Washington University and Portland State University are both in an athletic conference with a ROOT Sports football television contract. The conference also has a guaranteed berth in the men’s and women’s NCAA Final Four basketball tournaments. That is a lot of potential exposure for regional universities.
EWU is an athletic success story. Through it’s athletic program, EWU has garnered immense community support throughout the Spokane area, galvanized alumni relations both with the school and with one another, and raised EWU’s campus profile with applicants. EWU is using its “front porch” to great success.
Could UWT have such success? A five percent increase in UWT’s expenditures would be a large investment. But given UWT’s low profile, it is worth the money. UWT need only build its own “front porch.”