To handle the coming wave of students, we need can-do spirit

In the late 1950s the state of Washington faced a great opportunity. Hundreds of thousands of “baby boomers” were getting ready for college, and the state needed to make sure there was room for them.

“The state’s population almost doubled, but no one thought of it as bad,” says UW Geography Professor Richard Morrill of the post-war years. When parents of those days demanded a college education for their children, “the response of the state was, `Let’s do it.’ It didn’t scare people.”

The University of Washington almost doubled in 10 years, from 16,882 students in 1959 to 32,749 in 1969. At the same time, the state created its community college system and founded another four-year institution, the Evergreen State College in Olympia.

The general consensus is that the UW handled the baby boom well. It educated more than 110,000 “boomers” who are now a major force in business, science, the arts, education, government and engineering in the U.S. and around the world. As the University expanded, it hired rising stars for its faculty. Four professors who taught these boomers later won Nobel Prizes. The faculty research of this era made long-term kidney dialysis possible, cleaned up Lake Washington and helped build ceramic tiles for the space shuttle.

Today, faced with the echo of that original baby boom, the attitude is all too gloomy. When I talked to educators and legislators for this issue’s cover story, some spoke about “loads” and “burdens” when describing the additional students the state must educate. A few believed that technology will somehow solve the coming costs—that these students can get a college education just by sitting in front of a computer terminal or a TV screen.

Educating the original baby boom was regarded as an opportunity, not a natural disaster. As we look to the coming wave of students, we need to remember the successes of the past. As UW President Richard L. McCormick told the University community in his Nov. 14 address, “There is nothing unusual about the challenges before us. And they are no greater than our predecessors faced in the earlier eras. We must simply seize the initiative and act. The continuing distinction of the University of Washington depends on us.”