History of the WSU Vancouver campus

Washington State University Vancouver is located on the homelands of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and Peoples of the Lower Columbia Valley. The land that WSU Vancouver resides on continues to be integral to the lives and cultures of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and People of the Lower Columbia Valley, their descendants, and that history is tied to this land since time immemorial.

The quest for access to higher education results in WSU Vancouver’s establishment

Before Washington was a state

The residents of Southwest Washington have long been concerned about lack of higher education in the region. Reportedly, before Washington became a state, the territorial government designated 1,500 acres in what is now Southwest Washington for a land-grant institution. Unfortunately, the Morrill Act of 1862, also known as the Land Grant College Act, applied only to states and not to territories.

Washington gained statehood on Nov. 11, 1889, and on March 28, 1890, Washington’s Land Grant College was established by the state legislature. In April 1891, Pullman was chosen as the site of the new college.

Decades passed and the issue of access to higher education in Southwest Washington went unresolved. Then in 1933, Clark College was founded as a private, two-year junior college. Although it was a step in the right direction, the region still had no four-year or graduate education.

In the 1960s, citizens in Southwest Washington participated in a statewide initiative to create the next four-year school in Washington. Southwest Washington lost out to Olympia, which is now home to The Evergreen State College.

The need grows

The need for a four-year and graduate institution became even more important with the expansion of the high-tech industry in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area in the 1980s. The high-tech companies and economic development leaders made it clear they needed employees with appropriate degrees to fill positions. Without a qualified local population, businesses were recruiting from outside the area and paying for relocation. They claimed this region’s high-tech expansion was the only one in the country developing without a higher education research partner. And, they warned, continued growth would depend on a generally well-educated populace.

Baby steps

In September 1983, the Southwest Washington Joint Center for Education—a collaboration of Clark College, The Evergreen State College and Washington State University—began offering classes in the north wing of Hudson’s Bay High School to 18 graduate students. The Joint Center offered graduate courses in engineering and computer science along with some general undergraduate classes. It filled a gap, but didn’t solve the problem.

A university is born

Finally, after more than 125 years of wrestling with the issue of higher education, the state legislature founded Washington State University Vancouver on May 10, 1989 to increase access to higher education in Southwest Washington. Initially WSU Vancouver served only graduate students and upper-division students (juniors and seniors) who transferred from community college. WSU Vancouver operated from Bauer Hall on the Clark College campus.

According to the 1990 U.S. Bureau of the Census—at roughly the time of WSU Vancouver’s founding—only 16.8% of persons 25 years and older living in Clark County had a bachelor’s degree or higher. The university had some work to do.

By spring 1995, WSU Vancouver’s enrollment surpassed 850 students, and it was outgrowing its space in Bauer Hall. WSU Vancouver moved to the Salmon Creek campus in 1996, opening with an administrative building, a library, a classroom building and a physical plant.

Making a difference

By the millennium, it was clear WSU Vancouver was making a difference. The 2000 U.S. Census revealed that 22.1% of Clark County’s adult population held a bachelor’s degree or higher. While still lagging behind the state of Washington’s population overall at 27.7% and King County’s population at 40%, it was progress.

In 2004, the Washington State Legislature asked for a complete evaluation of the branch campuses and the policies associated with their creation. That study concluded that the campuses were having a major impact on their communities. Not only were people earning degrees, but, with more than 75% of them staying in the area after graduation, they were making their communities better places to live. Local employers were benefitting from a better-educated workforce, and local industries were beginning to benefit from research partnerships with WSU Vancouver.

The study also concluded that for some students, especially those who were interested in pursuing degrees in engineering and science, a full four-year option was an important one. The legislature gave WSU Vancouver permission to admit first-year and sophomore students beginning in fall 2006.

Today and beyond

Today 31.3% of Clark County’s adult population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. And there are more than 18,000 WSU Vancouver alumni, 95% of whom reside in the area. WSU Vancouver alumni work at your bank, file your taxes, teach your children and so much more.

Going back to its roots and the reason for its founding, the university considers the opinions of current and potential students, and business and community leaders when deciding which programs will best meet the needs of students and businesses, with an eye toward growing the local economy.

Founded in 1636, Harvard University considers itself to be the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. In light of Harvard’s 388-year history, WSU Vancouver’s 35-year history is miniscule. But in the words of Chancellor Emeritus H.A. “Hal” Dengerink on the occasion of WSU Vancouver’s 20th anniversary, “The impact of WSU Vancouver on the community is greater than the duration of its existence.”



Insight Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education, recognized WSU Vancouver with a Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award for the second time. The award recognizes U.S. colleges and universities that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion.


WSU Vancouver was awarded two Talent Search Grants totaling $2.75 million over a five-year grant cycle. Talent Search is a U.S. Department of Education TRIO program that identifies and assists middle and high school students who have the potential but not necessarily the means to participate in higher education


Faculty, staff and students returned to campus in person in August as COVID-19 vaccines were widely available. The campus celebrated the groundbreaking for the Life Sciences Building in November.


WSU Vancouver abruptly changed all classes to distance delivery and nearly shutdown the physical campus after spring break in March in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.


A rare corpse flower housed at WSU Vancouver bloomed for its first time.


Commencement was livestreamed for the first time to accommodate out-of-area and homebound family members and friends.


WSU Vancouver Health Services opened offering students basic health care services on campus.


WSU Vancouver developed and launched the 2016 – 2021 strategic plan. It identified five goals: research, student success, growth, equity and diversity, and community.


The Carson College of Business Center for Student Success was opened.


WSU Vancouver celebrated its 25th anniversary.


As a result of a student-led effort, WSU Vancouver became a tobacco-free campus.


Emile "Mel" Netzhammer joined WSU Vancouver as its second Chancellor.


Founding Chancellor H.A. Hal Dengerink retired. He was given the title Chancellor Emeritus and the Administration building was renamed the Dengerink Administration Building in his honor.


WSU Vancouver was the first urban site in Southwest Washington to earn Salmon-Safe certification, a designation that means the university is proactively and significantly improving the environmental health of its 351-acre property.


The Undergraduate Building was completed. It was the first WSU facility to be awarded LEED Gold Certification.


The Tod and Maxine McClaskey Foundation gave $1.5 million to expand the Child Development Program.


The Firstenburg Student Commons was dedicated to the student body.


WSU Vancouver welcomed its first freshman class.


Ed and Mary Firstenburg became WSU Vancouver’s first Laureate donors. The Firstenburg Student Commons was named for them in recognition of their generosity.


The School of Engineering and Computer Science became WSU Vancouver's first independently accredited school.


“Pillars of Fulfillment,” a sculpture by Women Who Weld celebrating the life of Lori Irving, beloved assistant professor of psychology, was dedicated.


The Firstenburg Family Fountain was completed. It’s the only fountain in the WSU system.


The first commencement at the Salmon Creek site was held outdoors on campus.


The new WSU Vancouver campus was dedicated on June 28, 1996.


WSU Vancouver broke ground on the Salmon Creek site.


WSU Vancouver was one of the first institutions in the country to use Interactive Electronic Classrooms (classes simulcast via video).


The Salmon Creek site was purchased as the permanent home for WSU Vancouver.


At the first WSU Vancouver commencement, 38 graduates received degrees.


On May 10, 1989, the Washington State Legislature formally established WSU Vancouver as one of four campuses that make up the WSU system.