WSUV's new leader outlines his vision

Six months into tenure, he targets technology, reining in tuition costs

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

Published:

 

WSU Vancouver fast facts

Year founded: 1989

Campus size: 351 acres

Student enrollment: Nearly 3,000

Number of Ph.D. faculty: 140+

Fields of study: 37

Bachelor’s programs: 19

Master’s programs: 9

Ph.D. programs: 2

Annual tuition and fees, full-time resident undergraduate: $11,386

Website: Washington State University Vancouver

Mel Netzhammer at a glance:

Keene State College, New Hampshire: Provost and vice president for academic affairs

Buffalo State College, New York: Faculty, department chair, dean of arts and humanities

Ph.D. in communication, University of Utah

M.A. in mass communication, University of Utah

B.A. in communication, Loyola University, New Orleans

Recipient, 2012 William Plater Award for Leadership in Civic Engagement

Mel Netzhammer’s college team was the Wolf Pack. Now he’s a Coug.

Six months into his first year at Washington State University Vancouver, Chancellor Emile C. “Mel” Netzhammer sat down with The Columbian to discuss his vision for the only public four-year university in Southwest Washington.

Netzhammer earned his bachelor’s degree in communications at Loyola University, a private Jesuit university in New Orleans, his hometown. That makes him a member of the Wolf Pack. But he said he’s found the WSU affiliation “energizing.”

For Netzhammer, being a Cougar means more than sporting crimson on game days. It’s a valuable resource when he speaks to alumni, business leaders and potential donors.

“The WSU brand is very important to us,” he said. “It provides the ability to leverage resources and to draw on the alumni.”

He’s using the strong WSU brand to reach far beyond the campus’ Salmon Creek boundaries to open doors that will bring new programs and opportunities to the satellite university.

Netzhammer was unanimously recommended to WSU President Elson Floyd by a 17-member search committee after a nationwide search last year. Netzhammer began his work as the second chancellor in the history of the campus on July 2. His annual salary is $300,000.

Hal Dengerink, the campus’ first chancellor, retired for health reasons in the summer of 2011 and died a month later. He’d led WSU Vancouver from its inception as a branch campus at Clark College in 1989.

Netzhammer never met his predecessor, but he said stepping into Dengerink’s shoes was “daunting.”

“He was loved by the community. He built this campus and left us with an incredible legacy,” Netzhammer said.

Already, the new chancellor is making his mark on the campus and has met with faculty and staff to gain a deeper understanding of the school.

“Mel is great, btw,” associate professor Dene Grigar, the Digital Technology and Culture Program’s director, said in an email. “We are excited about his vision for moving to WSUV 2.0.”

During his first six months on the job, Netzhammer said he’s been “considering how an institution intersects with the community, how we engage the community.”

He’s also been looking at programs and trends. The university will continue to invest in STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math. In the past year, the campus has added a 60,000-square-foot engineering and computer science building. The $38.5 million, four-story building offers laboratories, Class-100 clean rooms, classrooms and study spaces for WSU Vancouver students and faculty. The teaching and research facility will prepare students to meet employment needs of high-demand, high-tech fields in the region.

“As the health care industry moves to become more team-oriented, new positions will open up. We’ll need to respond by offering new programs,” he said. A new neuroscience program is also in the offing.

The campus plans to double its enrollment by the end of the decade. “That has to come by increasing the programs offered.”

He said the university is putting steps in place to bring to the campus a hospitality management program that includes food, beverages, lodging and the growing senior care field. Hospitality is the second-most-requested program. A communications program is the most-requested.

This fall the campus will “embark on a workforce needs and student demands assessment,” he said.

Increasing degree attainment will continue to be a focus, Netzhammer said. “We’ve moved the needle only a little.”

He also referred to the school’s continued emphasis on faculty research.

“The state decided to put a Research 1 university here in Southwest Washington,” Netzhammer said. “Much of it (research) is happening with Southwest Washington as our laboratory.”

Rising college costs

When Netzhammer was an undergraduate student at Loyola, a private college, he paid about $2,500 a year for tuition, he said.

Last May, the WSU board of regents voted to increase tuition by 16 percent for the second consecutive year. At WSU Vancouver, tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate Washington resident now total $11,386 annually.

“We need as a nation to look at ways to rein in tuition,” he said.

Netzhammer said he hopes the WSU Board of Regents won’t vote to raise tuition for the fall 2013 semester. Last October, WSU President Floyd presented to the board a proposal to stabilize undergraduate tuition for the next academic year by not raising tuition above the cost of living if state funding remains level. Floyd’s proposal is being reviewed by the WSU Tuition Policy Committee.

At the WSU Vancouver campus, only a third of its students are the traditional 18-to-23-year-old students found at a residential campus. The average student age is 26, and two-thirds of the students have families, jobs and adult responsibilities and expenses. The high cost of tuition affects students’ ability to afford to attend college, and those who finish accumulate too much student debt, he said.

Netzhammer mentioned two scholarship programs that have increased award amounts in the past year, helping ease the sting of higher tuition. The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship program raised its annual gift from $1,000 to $5,000 for juniors and seniors pursuing STEM careers, and the annual Vancouver Academic Achievement Award of $4,000 increased from two years to four years.

In his travels throughout Clark County and the surrounding region, he’s learned the potential extent of the campus’ reach.

“When I’m in Cowlitz County, people there own WSUV, as well,” Netzhammer said. “We’re building partnerships with LCC (Lower Columbia College in Longview), just like we have at Clark College.”

Here are the kinds of questions the new chancellor considers: Can we bring a cohort of nursing students to LCC to get their associate degree? How can we serve Cowlitz County and areas farther north? Does the campus need to consider residence halls for students who relocate from out of the area to enroll in the school’s innovative programs such as the Creative Media and Digital Culture Program?

Various points on campus offer vistas of both Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, both blanketed with snow this time of year. Netzhammer, an avid outdoorsman, says he’s already skied on Hood and looks forward to exploring the region’s hiking trails.

“It felt like a great fit,” Netzhammer said of his new campus home. “WSU has an incredible reputation. We’re Cougs. Our students love the fact that we’re Cougs.”


Susan Parrish: 360-735-4530; http://twitter.com/col_schools; susan.parrish@columbian.com.