Microsoft Sees Fruits of Civic Engagement in Tuition Reform

Just a few years ago it was tough for any local publication to get the attention of Microsoft. Narrowly focused on its corporate mission,  the software giant stood aloof from most civic concerns. The company was a little like another great software giant today that distances itself from local issues– Amazon.com.

Yet, when the Washington legislature passed painful legislation yesterday giving state universities control over their own tuition rates, an unpopular measure that could result in sharply higher tuition, Microsoft played an important role in its outcome. And the company was there to soften the blow. Microsoft and Boeing each company offered $25 million to launch a fund for scholarships.

Microsoft, a company that had studiously avoided civic engagement in the first decades of its life, has become actively involved in the local scene. And it’s largely the consequence of Microsoft’s General Counsel, Brad Smith. Perhaps it’s because Smith enjoys public discourse. Or perhaps Smith, who led Microsoft’s defense against the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust suit, came to understand the importance of dialog. During the antitrust case, there was a great deal of animosity toward Microsoft in the region in spite of the fact that the company was so important to the state’s economy that the chief economist regularly adjusted the state’s economic forecast to account for Microsoft’s hiring plans.

Smith says the reason Microsoft is more engaged in the local community is simple: “With 40,000 people employed here we feel it is good to have a dialog about our state,” he says.  “There are few companies that have as high a percentage of their employment in one state. We feel the health of Washington State is important.”

Last year, as chair of the Washington Roundtable, a group of large Washington businesses, Smith led an effort to focus on reform in higher education. It makes sense to set tuition rates to match what the market can bear and then use some of that extra money to offer scholarships to help out those who can’t afford the tuition, says Smith.

At a Seattle restaurant tonight, Smith spent two hours discussing these and other issues with a group of local journalists.  Among the things Smith had to say were the following:

Microsoft’s Future:

The industry is in such a dynamic stage of its evolution...In the last two weeks you’ve seen three significant things:  The Mango upgrade to the Windows Phone, Windows 8 and the new TV initiative with the Xbox.  The pieces are coming

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