Introduction and Context
As the land grant university for the state of Washington, Washington State University (WSU) has a unique heritage of advancing knowledge through creative research, extending knowledge through innovative education programs, and applying knowledge to enhance quality of life and to fuel economic growth. The genius of the land-grant university system signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 is still relevant today—providing high quality teaching, research, and outreach programs that are accessible to all citizens and that are responsive, relevant, and impactful to society.
Much has changed in higher education at WSU, and specifically in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture (VCEA) during the last few years. Consequently, we are at a watershed moment in VCEA, with unprecedented opportunities before us. Increasing demand for our graduates from industry and government leaders has meant that our program is growing in reputation at the university, state, and national level, and there is increased understanding of the important work that we do in this college.
The recent changing of our name to the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture honors the lifelong accomplishments and unflagging support by chemical engineering alumnus Gene Voiland and his wife, Linda. Our new name provides unprecedented opportunity as well as a great responsibility to represent the very best attributes of the Voilands that we wish to emulate: excellence, vision, accountability, and integrity.
We have been able to garner major investments in our infrastructure, and we are excited to move some of our signature, interdisciplinary research programs into our first new building in nearly 20 years, the PACCAR Environmental Technology Building. Moreover, with the new WSU Pullman Campus Master Plan, we look forward to better than ever possibilities for additional new buildings especially for housing our signature interdisciplinary research and education programs. In an example of a novel, interdisciplinary integration, the new School of Design and Construction was recently formed and presents new opportunities for collaborations and interdisciplinary partnerships across our college and across the university.
During the last five years, there has been a paradigm shift nationally in how higher education is viewed by legislators and the public, from the perception of higher education as a societal good to the perception of higher education as a personal benefit, so that a larger portion of the cost of higher education is borne by the student. For many students, this means graduating from college with a large student debt load or working full-time while going to college, or both. In response to growing demand across the state of Washington for access to engineering education for place-bound students, we established a hybrid model of delivery of the bachelor of science in mechanical engineering (BSME) degree program, first in Bremerton and now also in Everett, and we have expanded our engagement in both locations by increasing the number of students served. Along with the Pullman, Tri-Cities, and Everett campuses, this offers more opportunities for place- bound students throughout the state. New technology associated with online or distance delivery of coursework is sharpening the competitive arena as many universities aggressively compete for students. Still, there are definite advantages for those students who elect to attend college at a residential campus or through a hybrid program that offers a portion of the coursework in their communities. It is more important than ever that we strive to provide the best value for our stakeholders: our students, the state, corporations that hire our graduates, and the agencies that fund our research. In response, we have developed innovative ways to deliver our programs and be responsive to industrial needs in ever more locations.
One of these high-value advantages is our unique capstone design course experience, which is largely based on real industry design challenges, and is especially noteworthy for providing hands-on experience and industrial engagement. We also have a high percentage of our students involved in extracurricular student clubs—they can choose among 40+ groups within the college alone! These and other experiential opportunities enable our students to assemble a portfolio of activities and leadership experiences that make them very attractive and in high demand by employers. Enrollment in nearly all of our programs has skyrocketed and we are approaching 4,000 students enrolled in our undergraduate programs (see graph below) along with more than 650 graduate students. In recognition of this, as well as the state’s keen interest in our high-demand fields, both the state and the university have made significant new investments in our college to allow us to add faculty and staff. The Engineering Expansion Initiative provided an initial boost in state funding to VCEA in exchange for a commitment that we would educate an increased number of engineering students. That was followed by a second state initiative in the 2013-2015 biennium that provided additional funding for computer science and engineering programs.
Being able to increase the number of faculty and staff will mean that, with thoughtful hiring practices, we can more fully establish our areas of preeminence upon which our academic and scholarly reputation depends. Philanthropic investments by individuals such as Gene and Linda Voiland and corporations such as PACCAR have been instrumental in this strategy. Such investments have enabled us to attract and retain distinguished faculty who lead our preeminent emphases, to develop new educational and research facilities, and to build programs that enhance our student’s education.
Thoughtful hiring will also position us to lead through research, scholarship, and innovation aimed at addressing grand challenges around energy, environment, health, and technology. Our research expenditures have more than doubled in the past seven years to over $25 million in FY14 and we anticipate that this trend will continue as we focus on core research areas and continue to hire outstanding faculty at all ranks. As we build strengths in these core areas, we also have opportunities to collaborate with colleagues from across the WSU system in global animal health, agriculture, clean technology, and renewable bioenergy. Added to that, the university’s pursuit of a medical school on the health sciences campus in Spokane provides tremendous interdisciplinary and collaborative research and educational opportunities among the VCEA and medical sciences faculty and students. This will position our researchers to better compete for National Institutes of Health funding in addressing grand challenges in protein systems, biomaterials, and medical and bio informatics; assisting the aging population and people with cognitive disabilities; and expanding biomedical engineering, to name a few.
Finally, the vice president for research (VPR) is working to shape the research agenda for WSU around high-impact, interdisciplinary grand challenges for which there already exist significant expertise at WSU. Our eminent faculty have realized for some time that the solutions to society’s grand challenges will lie at the interfaces between many disciplines, and the research themes that characterize much of our research are inherently interdisciplinary. Thus, the VCEA is well-positioned to benefit from the university’s strategic planning; we conducted a similar exercise as part of our previous strategic planning activities, and are well prepared to contribute to and influence the university’s direction. In short, we may never see this level of opportunity to shape our future again.
Being attentive now to the changing higher education landscape, and being clear and deliberate on our priorities, strengths, goals, and metrics will position the VCEA well into the future as a leader among engineering colleges at land-grant universities. By conducting impactful research that addresses the grand challenges, delivers technology and innovation to our stakeholders in the state and beyond, and graduates the next generation of highly sought-after innovators, designers, and leaders, the VCEA plays an important and critical role in elevating WSU as one of the world’s most influential and well-regarded universities. We look forward to a new era of “Collaboration. Innovation. Transformation!”