Over the past two years, higher education in Washington state has been hit hard by the recession that has gripped the entire nation. In responding to the harsh realities of our new situation, the Department of Geography at the University of Washington has become more entrepreneurial, and more focused on our own efforts to support our students, staff, and faculty. We have initiated three new strategies to raise the revenue needed to continue our high level of teaching and research support.
The first strategy we’ve engaged is to develop a new self-sustaining Master’s program in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). This program involves two weeks of intensive, Seattle-based training (at the beginning and end of the program), and two years of on-line teaching. We chose to develop a professional GIS course because of the overwhelming demand for these types of skills, particularly among young professionals. The on-line version of the class serves both those in the Pacific Northwest and also a significant number of international students. It’s a win-win situation for Geography, as we are able to serve the needs of local and foreign students, and also bring in a significant new revenue stream for the department.
Our second strategy has been to seek out unusual sources of funding for our students, including grants and work opportunities that are not well publicized or known outside of a relatively small scholarly niche. Because geography is such a wonderfully flexible field, and our students are better trained than most small departments, we have had great success in placing students across campus in positions such as the Center for Studies of Demography and Ecology (CSDE), the Center for Statistics (CSSCR), the English writing link, the Law, Societies and Justice program, the advising center, and many others. We are also highly successful with in-house fellowships such as the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) grants, which enable our students to continue their studies while learning a foreign language at the same time.
A third source of revenue makes us all feel very nostalgic, but reflects both the new economic realities, as well as the shifts in cartography that have occurred over the past decade. We are selling our maps! Partnering with UW Supplies, we plan to auction off hundreds of our old maps on EBay over the course of this coming year. We are also economizing on our printing and copying (unfortunately, we now have to charge students for these functions), and otherwise cutting back in our everyday operations.
Thanks to the generous gifts of our donors, however, we have been able to maintain a remarkably high level of support to both our faculty and our students. For example, we have been able to continue our lovely graduation ceremony at the Urban Horticultural Center, our colloquium series, and our monthly “first Friday” pizza lunches for undergraduates. These lunches give us a chance to provide information that’s ‘good for them’ such as resume building, career panels, and how to apply to grad school–which they otherwise tend to ignore (who has time, right?!).
More importantly, perhaps, recent donor gifts have supported undergraduate and graduate level research and learning that otherwise might never have happened because of the declining dollars available from public and private foundations. I’d like to share one example of how contributions from alumni and friends of the Department can positively impact our students.
In 2007, Dennis and Diane Durden established an endowment to support graduate students in geography. Last year funds from the endowment supported a “dissertator retreat” for advanced graduate students. Using the beautiful (and inexpensive) UW facilities at Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands, seven students and two faculty met up with eleven students and faculty from the University of British Columbia, for three days and two nights of intense, intellectual discussion, sharing of data and methods, and peer review of research proposals and writing. All of the students who were fortunate enough to attend the retreat raved about it. The experience was clearly formative for the students, who had the rare opportunity to think and write and get extraordinary peer and instructor feedback without the usual distractions of work and everyday life. One student, Patricia Lopez, wrote of her time there: “It’s difficult to express just how rare and wonderful it was to be in this beautiful and intimate setting with such amazing minds from two different universities – to receive real feedback from highly-respected academics with such candor. But especially, how grateful we all were to walk away with a sense of purpose and feeling so very supported (by both faculty and other grad students – many of whom we’d just met!) in what is, perhaps, one of the more daunting aspects of the PhD process. The intense passion and interest and dedication to our field that was shared over those three days reminded me of why I not only became a graduate student, but specifically, a Geographer.”
To all of our contributors, let me offer my profound thanks for your support. We have been able to continue our great programs through your continuing help. Please join us this spring, as we celebrate the department’s 75th Anniversary! The date and venue will be announced in my next letter.
With best wishes,