A gift from Gates, and grumblings from Olympia

When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it was giving a record $70 million to the University of Washington to further genetic research, everyone on the campus was ecstatic.

Well, almost everyone.

On the second floor of Gerberding Hall there was one senior official who felt that his job just got a little harder. At the very moment the gift was announced, the state Legislature was trying to close a $2.6 billion deficit projected for 2003-05. The UW’s government relations director in Olympia, Dick Thompson, ’68, knew what was coming from some lawmakers in state capitol hallways.

“The gist of their comments was ‘You’ve got all those private donations, why do you need more money from us?’ ” he says.

Thompson says that some legislators grumble that the UW “whines too much,” that with all the money coming in from other sources, the University should stop complaining about its declining state support. (In 2001-02, the UW was 16 percent behind the average of its peer institutions in the amount of state funding it receives per student — about $92 million annually.)

It’s probably true that after reading the headlines about the Gates gift, some alumni may have felt the same way. But they were very, very wrong.

Since 1861, the first mission of the University of Washington has been teaching. In this issue, we celebrate the teaching achievements of seven top UW faculty. But these outstanding teachers — or any other UW classroom legend such as Edmond Meany, Giovanni Costigan, Hugh Bone, Dee Boersma, Charles Johnson, Willis Konick or Victoria Lawson — would not be here without state support.

The truth is that state funds and student tuition support the UW’s teaching mission. Without the state’s contribution, our teaching function would either wither away — or the UW would become a private university.

The UW is proud of the many gifts it receives each year. Last year we received a record $239 million in private gifts and grants, and it looks like 2002-03 will be another record year. In the case of the historic Gates Foundation gift, $60 million will go toward the construction of new building to house genome sciences and bioengineering, and $10 million will support genetic research to benefit global health issues.

But 99 percent of private giving is dedicated to specific programs and units. If there is a sudden drop in state funding, the UW can’t simply transfer a gift to make up the difference.

It all goes back to what Dick Thompson tells the lawmakers. “You have to support the teaching mission. It is the foundation we have to have in place to have a great research institution as well,” he explains.

Are they listening in Olympia?