In Our View: Settling in at WSUV

New chancellor understands university's past and its potential

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Mel Netzhammer brought a proper balance — respect for a powerful institutional legacy, plus the innovative ideas of an outsider -- to his new role as chancellor at Washington State University Vancouver. One thing, though: He's rapidly losing his outsider credentials, and his role is not so new anymore.

After six months on the job, Netzhammer is very much the Coug. He talks, acts and looks (plenty of crimson and gray apparel) the role of WSUV leader and speaks with the enthusiasm and confidence of one who might have roamed the Salmon Creek campus for years.

That comfort, plus a willingness to take WSUV to new heights in many different ways, were just two of the positive impressions left by a Monday Columbian story about Netzhammer. Here are others:

Although Netzhammer never met Hal Dengerink, the new Coug commander in Vancouver understands the enormity of the legacy left by the man. In its first two decades, Dengerink was the only chancellor WSU Vancouver ever had. He died in 2011, and Netzhammer knows that the man he replaced "was loved by the community. He built this campus and left us an incredible legacy."

True, but Dengerink's successor already is starting to leave his own marks in a crucial mission: improving the access to and the quality of Southwest Washington's leading institution of higher learning.

To his credit, Netzhammer is looking beyond the "V" in WSUV. "When I'm in Cowlitz County, people there own WSUV, as well," he said in the Monday story by Susan Parrish. The Vancouver school is strengthening bonds with Lower Columbia College in Longview. It is starting to step out more as a regional university, even exploring the possibility of residence halls to someday house students from beyond Clark County.

Also, Netzhammer seems to have a strong comprehension about the defining traits of 21st-century jobs. He knows the value of investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). He realizes that rapidly advancing medical technology, coupled with the aging baby boomer generation, means the health care industry will be rich with jobs for decades to come. Netzhammer has mentioned adding a neuroscience program at WSUV.

A quick review of student-body demographics is all that's needed to realize that WSUV is unlike many traditional campuses. The average student age is 26. Many students are spouses and parents, with jobs and without abundant financial resources for higher education. So Netzhammer is trying to moderate the surge in tuition costs while expanding scholarship opportunities.

WSUV's new chancellor had virtually no prior connections to the place he now calls home. He came here from the job as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Keene State College in New Hampshire. He previously worked in New York and earned bachelor's and advanced degrees in Louisiana and Utah. But in his position as WSUV chancellor, he carries the endorsement of a unanimous vote by the university's search committee.

Many tough challenges will burden Netzhammer and others at WSUV. Chief among these will be the financial side of providing higher education as WSUV leaders seek to double enrollment in seven years. But Netzhammer needs only to look at WSUV's new $38.5 million engineering and computer science building to find one of many examples of how massively the state and the community support the operation he now supervises.