University of Washington Tacoma

  • By Justin Wadland and Charles Williams
  • Posted 11/07/2017
  • Essay 20469

Established as a result of widespread community support and statewide efforts to expand access to higher education, the University of Washington Tacoma opened its doors in 1990. Since that time, the student population has grown dramatically, with freshmen and sophomores added to the original junior and senior transfers, and the campus has expanded its educational offerings from a single upper-division Liberal Studies program to a full range of undergraduate and graduate offerings in seven programs and schools. Because of its location in a historic warehouse district, the campus continues to play a vital role in revitalizing and transforming downtown Tacoma and the surrounding region. The university has in many ways fulfilled its original mission to provide underserved students educational opportunity even as it grapples with contemporary challenges to public education.

A Public University for Tacoma

On October 1, 1990, the University of Washington Tacoma began offering its first classes in the newly renovated rooms of the Perkins Building in downtown Tacoma. With 13 founding faculty, 11 staff, and 187 enrolled students, all juniors and seniors transferring from other schools, the university fit easily on four floors of the eight-story building. Despite its modest beginnings, the presence of this small branch campus marked a significant turning point for Tacoma, the surrounding region, and the tens of thousands of students who would eventually graduate from it.

UW Tacoma was founded as a direct result of widespread community support in the Tacoma area and statewide efforts to expand access to higher education. In 1985, the Washington State Legislature established the Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board to develop a comprehensive plan for public higher education in the state. At that time, Washington's participation rate in higher education was 10 percent below the national average. Compounding this problem, most of the state's public universities were located far from the major population centers that had emerged in the twentieth century.

The HEC Board assigned the University of Washington to study the educational needs of the Puget Sound region. Professor Donna Kerr (b. 1944) served as the principal investigator, and in 1988 she submitted what would come to be known as the Kerr Report, an extensive analysis of the viability of two prospective UW branch campuses. The report identified Bothell-Woodinville and Tacoma as possible campus locations and suggested they could serve an estimated 7,800 students, many of them "placebound" adults whose "work and other responsibilities" prevented them from obtaining a degree at existing campuses (Kerr, 3). Along with recommendations on curriculum, administration, and scheduling, the report proffered the first of many growth projections for a prospective UW Tacoma: By 2010, 6,000 students would be enrolled.

In parallel to these developments, business leaders and politicians from Tacoma were championing a state university for the city. Some, like Fred Haley (1912-2005), even imagined a Tacoma State University. State representatives Brian Ebersole (b. 1947) and Dan Grimm (b. 1945) tapped into this enthusiasm, and in 1988 they asked Haley to create the South Sound Higher Education Council, which he co-chaired with Phyllis Erickson (1923-2013). Members of the committee included Karl Anderson, Elizabeth Heath, and others who would serve as long-time advocates of the Tacoma campus. After hiring William Chance to complete a separate feasibility study of a university campus in Tacoma, this group developed its own vision for the campus: it would have first-rate faculty with an interdisciplinary focus, it would maintain an identity eparate from the main campus, and its tuition would stay low to enable the largest participation of placebound citizens.

Representative Ebersole, who became Speaker of the House; Booth Gardner (1936-2013), then serving as governor; and other state politicians from Pierce County bolstered the case for UW Tacoma. Members of the group, colloquially known as the "Pierce County mafia," were strong champions throughout the legislative process. In addition Elizabeth Heath, Dawn Lucien (1925-2017), and other civic leaders from Tacoma advocated for the university as unpaid lobbyists in Olympia. Some legislators questioned allocating so much to Pierce County and believed that additional spending should instead expand existing university offerings. The bill to establish a total of five new branch campuses for the University of Washington and Washington State University passed easily through the House, struggled to get through the Senate, and ultimately reached Booth Gardner, who signed it into law on May 31, 1989.

Six months later, the UW organized a search committee for the faculty who would teach at what the job ad described as "two metropolitan, upper-division, non-residential branch campuses" that would open in Bothell and Tacoma the following year (Lanphere, 37). Thirteen founding faculty were hired for each campus. The new faculty for Tacoma gathered at a retreat at the Tacoma Sheraton Hotel in April 1990, and over a long weekend, planned the Liberal Studies curriculum of the university.

Choosing a Permanent Location

Even as the first classes began in the fall of 1990 in the Perkins Building, the university had not officially decided on a permanent location for the campus. That spring, the UW Board of Regents had considered four possible locations: vacant farmland in Fife east of Tacoma, available acreage on the Tacoma Community College campus, in the Hilltop neighborhood, and several downtown blocks near Union Station. A poll taken in March 1990 showed a majority favoring the Fife or TCC locations. Yet while the board deliberated over these sites, officials from the City of Tacoma suggested another site that overlapped the downtown location: Tacoma's historic warehouse district.

Except for historic preservationists and city planners, few people at the time could have pictured a university going there. The area was known primarily for its quirky antique shops, dive bars, strip clubs, and drug addicts. Like warehouse districts across the country, it had been constructed for an industrial economy that was long gone, and many of its buildings had become derelict. Yet in spite of decades of neglect -- and as a testament to their quality -- the buildings remained sturdy and grand structures, ready for a new role. Following the recommendations of a local siting committee, the UW and the HEC Board decided in November 1990 to place the university in the warehouse district on a 46-acre site between S 17th and S 21st avenues, bounded by Tacoma Avenue on the west and Pacific Avenue on the east.

It took seven years to design and build the campus and renovate buildings. The UW Tacoma campus opened on September 27, 1997, to some 1,200 students.

Growth of Campus and Curriculum

Since its founding, UW Tacoma has been characterized by near-constant evolution and growth. Starting initially with the interdisciplinary Liberal Studies program, the campus aimed to add professional programs over time. The first two were launched in 1992, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program and a Master of Education program. A Business Administration program followed in 1993, growing from 40 students in its first year to 450 (graduate and undergraduate) by 2003, when it became the Milgard School of Business after a $15 million donation from the Milgard family.

Following the move to UW Tacoma's permanent campus, a Master of Social Work program began in 1998. Liberal Studies was also redefined as Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, highlighting the university's distinctive approach to undergraduate education. This was complemented by a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies that was introduced in 2000.

Reflecting a call for additional focus in computer science fields, the Institute of Technology was established in 2001 with an emphasis on computer science degrees and expectations that it might become the state's polytechnic university. That same year the Urban Studies program admitted its first class of undergraduate students, rounding out the range of programs, many since restructured as "schools," that defined the campus in 2017.

Along with continuous growth in the number of undergraduate degrees offered at UW Tacoma, graduate education expanded significantly after 2010. The expansion included master's degrees focusing on cybersecurity, community planning, business analytics, and geospatial technologies, as well as the campus's first doctoral program, a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership that enrolled its first students in 2013.

As academic offerings increased, student enrollment also grew substantially, reaching 1,690 students in 2000. In 2006, when the first freshman class entered UW Tacoma -- which until then served junior and senior transfers and graduate students -- enrollment had climbed to 2,200 students. It reached nearly 5,000 in 2017.

Despite this considerable transformation, UW Tacoma remained defined by its original mission to serve students from the South Sound region. A high percentage of students continued to be transfers from nearby community colleges, and in 2016 the top five high schools for first-year entering students were all located in Pierce County or South King County. In line with the commitment to expanded educational access in an underserved region, 64 percent of freshmen in the fall of 2016 had parents who had not received a college degree. That same quarter, 73 percent of students received financial aid and 10 percent received veterans' benefits. The campus also became increasingly diverse with regard to race and ethnicity, going from a student population that was 77 percent white (or not indicated) in 2003 to 47 percent in 2015, with significant percentage gains in the number of African American, Latino, and Asian students over that same period. In 2015 the website Priceonomics ranked UW Tacoma as one of the best and most accessible universities for low-income students.

If much of UW Tacoma's mission remained relatively consistent over time, the development of the university was not without setbacks and occasional disputes. Despite the aim of serving the local community, for example, in 2017 UW Tacoma continued to be underrepresented in faculty of color reflecting the diversity of the student body.

Although the campus kept growing, many student enrollment projections proved to be overly optimistic. In 1988, the Kerr Report predicted 6,000 students by 2010, with some estimates as high as 10,000 students by the same year. Similarly, there were hopes that the Institute of Technology would have 1,000 students by 2010, compared to the actual result of just over 250 (graduate and undergraduate). There have always been questions about whether the physical growth of the university's facilities, limited by its urban location, could allow for the numbers projected for future enrollment.

Some of the transitions and possible problems facing higher education across the country were also evident at UW Tacoma. For instance, the university experienced a substantial shift in its faculty composition since 2008, with a much greater reliance on full- and part-time lecturers -- rather than tenure-track faculty -- than was previously the case. According to one measure, in 2007 slightly less than 64 percent of the faculty at UW Tacoma were in tenured or tenure-track positions, while by 2015 this number had fallen to less than 47 percent of the total number of faculty. Critics argue that this kind of transformation hinders optimal teaching conditions, threatens academic freedom, and diminishes faculty voice in the university. The period following the 2007-2009 economic crisis known as the Great Recession and the erosion of state funding for higher education also brought higher tuition and increasing uncertainties about the resources needed to support existing and new programs. Taking the University of Washington system as a whole, where state funds made up 66 percent of the general operating fund in 2003, by 2017, 65 percent of the funding came from tuition revenue.

Admitting First-Year Students

After serving junior and senior transfers and graduate students for 15 years, UW Tacoma's first freshman class of 200 students was admitted in 2006. Some community college leaders had worried that UW Tacoma's conversion to a four-year university might threaten their role in a resource-strapped system of higher education. In 2005, the Washington State Legislature nonetheless approved the expansion as part of a larger policy that also included UW Bothell and WSU Vancouver. By 2015, freshmen and sophomores made up roughly 25 percent of undergraduate students at UW Tacoma.

This significant shift fed into larger changes the campus was already seeing. For one, it contributed to a developing trend toward a younger student body. The university also began to transition from being a strictly commuter campus to one with residential offerings. In 2000, the Court 17 Apartments opened with two floors leased by the university for student housing. In 2016, UW Tacoma purchased the entire building and opened its first student-only dorm, capable of accommodating 290 students. Around the same time, other developments, such as the University Y Student Center, demonstrated efforts to offer amenities to residential students. In addition the University Y reflected a strategy of public-private partnerships as a mechanism to expand the campus in the context of limited public resources.

Campus Leadership and Local Partnerships

Initially, UW Tacoma shared its leadership with Bothell when Donna Kerr was appointed as the dean of the UW branch campuses. As the principal investigator of the Kerr Report, she was intimately involved in the planning process for the campuses, but after one year, she resigned to return to a research position. John Keating (1937-2016), a UW psychology professor who had chaired the search committee for founding faculty, then became the lead administrator for the branch campuses. As both campuses grew, his work became increasingly complex; by the time he resigned to take a position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993, UW Tacoma had 22 faculty and more than 600 students.

UW officials decided that each campus required its own leader. After a national search, Vicky Carwein was chosen to become the first dean of UW Tacoma, a position that would receive the designation chancellor in 1998. Carwein came from the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, where she had worked for 23 years, having moved from a faculty position into administration. During her nine years at UW Tacoma, she guided the campus as it moved into its permanent location and saw student enrollment triple to a little more than 2,100 students. In addition, the Institute of Technology and the Milgard School of Business were added during her tenure as a result of donations from the local business communities.

In 2005, Patricia Spakes came from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania to serve as UW Tacoma's second chancellor. News coverage following her arrival spoke of her ambitions for the campus and her responses to the expectations of the community, such as a proposal to add a law school. After years of outstanding growth and success, the campus seemed poised to achieve such dreams. Plans were already underway, for instance, to bring in the campus's first class of freshmen in 2006. Yet within a few years, both Spakes and the university encountered significant challenges. In response to the financial crisis of 2007-2009, UW Tacoma saw staff layoffs and large-scale budget cuts for the first time, and some on campus faulted Spakes's handling of these decisions. Just prior to announcing her retirement in 2011, Spakes sent a letter to the campus apologizing for not demonstrating the "respect I have for you as faculty or staff, nor have I listened as closely as I should" (Sherman).

Spakes's successor, Debra Friedman (1955-2014), had served as an administrator on the UW Seattle campus and came with previous experience working at a school in an urban setting, Arizona State University in Phoenix. Promoting the concept of an urban university as the "anchor tenant" revitalizing the urban core of a city, she aligned UW Tacoma with a coalition of public-research universities located in urban areas. In doing so, she refined the university's image of itself in relationship to the community and helped rearticulate its guiding values. With a leadership style that favored bold and swift decisions, she expanded upon existing partnerships and cemented new ones. For instance, she created the "Pathways to Promise" program to offer scholarships and other educational opportunities to local students and enlisted personnel. She began the process to complete the Prairie Line Trail on campus, which converted an old railroad right-of-way into a public trail and green space. The university and YMCA entered into a partnership to establish a jointly run, much-needed, student athletic facility. However, in the fall of 2013, Friedman was diagnosed with lung cancer. She continued to work, keeping her diagnosis to herself until the spring of 2014, when she announced medical leave. She died two days later at the age of 58.

In the spring of 2015, Mark Pagano became the fourth chancellor, coming from Montana State University Billings, where he was provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. His arrival coincided with many vacancies in the senior administration of the university. In addition to stabilizing campus leadership, Pagano also sought to develop a new strategic plan for the university. Drawing upon extensive campus and community input, the resulting plan identified "providing access to education and opportunity" as a central theme ("Charting Our Course").

While the official leadership encountered some difficult transitions over the years, many of the founding faculty in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, as well as the other schools and programs that were added over the years, stayed at UW Tacoma for the remainder of their careers. The perspectives of these founders contribute continuity to the character and direction of the university. In addition, the university has an advisory board made up of many longtime supporters that has helped to guide the university and foster ongoing partnerships with the local community.

The Center for Urban Waters, a joint venture between the university, the City of Tacoma, and the Puget Sound Partnership, offers perhaps the clearest example of how the presence of the university has enabled locally focused activities and research. The idea for such a facility had been around for some time -- Fred Haley in a commencement speech in the early 1990s envisioned a university-affiliated center that might focus on the cleanup of Commencement Bay -- but actual planning for the center did not begin until 2002, when representatives from the City of Tacoma, the Port of Tacoma, and UW Tacoma began exploring the possibility. They then secured funding to build the facility and attract researchers. Located in an environmentally sustainable building on the Thea Foss Waterway, the center is now a leading site for investigating the environmental conditions of Puget Sound.

Economic Impact

Urban renewal and economic development have been central aspects of UW Tacoma's impact on the local community. The move to the permanent campus in 1997 is widely credited with playing a key role in transforming what was previously a struggling neighborhood. Along with a new Washington State History Museum and a renovated Union Station (housing a U.S. District Court in a newly constructed addition), the emergence of UW Tacoma provided an architectural, community, and economic anchor at the southern end of downtown. The surrounding neighborhood has since seen the opening of the Museum of Glass, a relocated Tacoma Art Museum, the Tacoma School of the Arts high school, the Link light rail system, and the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. Private resources complemented the public investments, with a hotel and several housing/mixed-use complexes opening by 2003. As one general estimate, approximately $1.5 billion in public and private money was invested in downtown Tacoma between 1990 and 2003.

The urban design of the campus, avoiding the closed-off feel of many universities, also incorporated significant commercial space along Pacific Avenue. Beyond attracting additional private investment, the resulting restaurants and retail businesses generated substantial foot traffic and greater vibrancy in the area. UW Tacoma has accordingly been described as promoting the "reurbanization" of the inner city ("The Urban University ...," 85).

The university itself serves as a significant employer, having grown to 350 faculty members and 314 staff members by 2016. And those on-campus jobs helped create more jobs in the surrounding community: A University of Washington report in 2014 credited UW Tacoma with a total employment impact, direct and indirect, of 1,608 jobs. The local economic impact of spending by the growing student, faculty, and staff population was substantial. One early estimate of the total effect of their expenditures was approximately $1.7 million a year in 2002, and this number has likely grown significantly in subsequent years as the campus population has more than doubled.

Amid the positive views of the university's impact on the community, there have also been concerns. Some neighborhood organizations and community leaders have seen the university as more closely aligned with downtown business revitalization than with issues of social welfare and social justice in nearby neighborhoods. Others have worried that money focused on downtown amounts to money diverted from other possible uses in disadvantaged areas. Certainly the success of UW Tacoma as an engine of urban revitalization comes with complex questions about how to appropriately combine this role of the campus with other elements of its urban-serving mission.

In the broadest terms, UW Tacoma's contribution to economic and community development can be defined by its role in fostering higher rates of college graduation in the South Sound region. While it is difficult to isolate the university's role relative to overall trends in Pierce County, the region has seen a growing percentage of the population 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher, going from approximately 18 percent in 1990 to 23 percent in 2008 to just under 25 percent in 2015. While this is suggestive of the positive role played by UW Tacoma, Pierce County remained below education levels for the state as a whole, where approximately 33 percent of the population 25 and older held at least a bachelor's degree in 2015.

Questions for the Future

The founding, growth, and evolution of UW Tacoma raise a host of questions that have ramifications for the local community and the wider region. One set relates to funding: As state revenue makes up less of the overall budget -- a trend that is likely to continue -- how will the university maintain its commitment to providing access to education? With this shift in funding also contributing to an increased reliance on less-secure and shorter-term faculty positions, how will the new funding realities affect campus climate and institutional stability? Since most of the growth projections did not account for these economic changes, what effect will they have on the plans to expand the physical space and curriculum of the university? If the university taps into alternative revenue sources, how might they influence campus priorities?

Other questions touch upon the character of the campus: As UW Tacoma continues to develop a distinct identity, how will it evolve and operate within the wider University of Washington system? As the local community continues to shape and influence the teaching and research on campus, how will the university respond to emerging local issues or needs? In what ways will UW Tacoma further express its role as an urban-serving university?

The history of UW Tacoma reveals the dramatic changes strong community leadership and public funding for education can bring to a city and the wider region, and yet many of the questions now facing the university arise out of tensions -- and at times competing interests -- that have existed within the organization since its founding. Going forward, UW Tacoma will sustain itself to the extent that it upholds its mission of student access to higher education in the South Puget Sound region and adapts itself to the emerging contexts of the twenty-first century.


Brian Coffey and Yonn Dierwechter, "The Urban University as a Vehicle for Inner-City Renewal: The University of Washington, Tacoma," The University as Urban Developer: Case Studies and Analysis ed. by Wim Wiewel and David C. Perry (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2005), 80-97; Yonn Dierwechter and Brian Coffey, "Connections Matter: Will Tacoma Make the Right Ones?" Arcade, 2003, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 30-31; Justin Wadland interview with Michael Sullivan, January 5, 2017, Tacoma, interview notes in possession of Justin Wadland; Michael Sullivan, "A City in Two Acts," Arcade, 2003, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 22-25; John Pastier, "Building Blocks: A College Campus for Industrial Tacoma, Wash.," Preservation: The Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1997, Vol. 49, No. 6, pp. 15-17; Don Miles, Trackside (Tacoma: City of Tacoma, 1988); Jeff Lanphere, "The University That Came to the People: A History of the University of Washington, 1990-1995," manuscript dated 1996, box 3, University of Washington Tacoma Office of Academic Affairs records, Accession No. 10-003, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Donna Kerr, "Plan to Expand Upper-Division and Graduate Programs in the Puget Sound Region: A Report to the Higher Education Coordinating Board" (Seattle: University of Washington, August 10, 1988), copies available at University of Washington Libraries (No. LA382.5 P52 1988); "University of Washington Tacoma Campus Master Plan: Final Draft" (prepared by Moore Ruble Yudell, Loschky Marquardt & Nesholm, Hanna/Olin), December 1993, copy available at Permanent Reserves, UW Tacoma Library; Dan Kopf, "Ranking the Best (and Worst) Colleges for Low Income Students," October 21, 2015, Priceonomics website accessed October 26, 2017, (; Bynn Grimley, "25 Things to Know as University of Washington Turns 25," The News Tribune, August 23, 2015, p. A-1; "The UW Tacoma, 20 Years and 10,000 Diplomas Later," Ibid., June 20, 2010, p. B-6; Rob Carson, "Growing Pains at UW Tacoma." Ibid., August 3, 2008, p. D-1; David Wickert, "The Long View Gave School its Present, Will Serve Future," Ibid., October 30, 2000, p. A-1; David Wickert, "Thinking Big, Still Feeling Intimate -- as Student Body Gets Larger, Campus Offers More Classes While Maintaining its Spirit," Ibid., October 29, 2000, p. A-1; Steve Maynard, "Tacoma's Branch Campus of UW to Get Dean of its Own," Ibid., January 22, 1994, p. B-5; Cindy Brown, "Blazing an Academic Trail -- New Dean Takes Charge at UW Tacoma Today," Ibid., September 18, 1995, p. A-1; David Wickert, "Her Career Blossomed, as Did Campus -- Chancellor's Lobbying Talent Kept College Development on Track," Ibid., April 15, 2004, p. A-1; David Wickert, "New Chancellor Sees Bright Future --Patricia Spakes, the New University of Washington Tacoma Chancellor," Ibid., May 12, 2005, p. A-1; Kris Sherman, "UWT Leader Will Retire," Ibid., May 8, 2010, p. A-1; Debbie Cafazzo, "New Leader for UWT," Ibid., April 21, 2010, p. A-1; Peter Callaghan, "UWT Institute of Technology Hasn't Yet Realized Creators' Dreams," Ibid., February 28, 2010, p. B-1; Bynn Grimley, "UWT Leader 'Lifted Community' before Death from Cancer," Ibid., February 16, 2014, p. A-1; Debbie Cafazzo, "Chancellor Left Legacy of Excellence at UWT," Ibid., January 27, 2014, p. A-1; Bynn Grimley, "Coming from Montana State Billings -- New Chancellor Expected to Give UWT 'Clear Vision,'" Ibid., January 7, 2015, p. A-1; Rob Carson, "Urban Waters Spirit Runs Deep," Ibid., April 5, 2010, p. A-1; "Fast Facts: 2017," University of Washington Office of Planning and Budgeting website accessed July 3, 2017 (; "UW Tacoma 2016-17 Facts," University of Washington Tacoma website accessed July 3, 2017 (; "Charting Our Course: UW Tacoma's Strategic Plan, 2016-2021," UW Tacoma website accessed October 30, 2017 (; "2014 Economic and Community Impact Report of the University of Washington," University of Washington Office of External Affairs website accessed September 26, 2017 (; Gene Kim and Arlyn Arquiza, "State of Diversity at UW -- All Campuses," University of Washington Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity website accessed September 26, 2017 (

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