Bruce's Blog

May 5, 2010

What is happening with the "100 Conversations?"

Really, the idea of having 100 Conversations grew somewhat serendipitously. It started with our exploration, as state support dropped well below 50%, of just what that meant for the kind of university we were to become. No longer “public” in the sense that the State was a majority stakeholder in our operating budget, what were we?

Some facing similar changes around the country use phrases like “publicly assisted.” This, though, would seem to define us by where the money comes from rather than by the mission that drives us. For want of something more euphonious, we began trying out the phrase “publicly purposed university.”

Then somebody asked the obvious question: “How are those public purposes determined?”

And, I caught myself thinking along lines habitual for a person who has spent all his professional life in academia: “Why, we in the university are in the best position to figure out what the public really needs and so that is what we will do.” Fortunately, I never actually said that.

Rather, it seemed like the most obvious answer to who defines “public purposes” is: the public. Then, in a conversation over lunch one day with Foundation Board member Virginia Anderson and Vice President Stephanie Bowers, the idea of “100 Conversations” arose. As I recall the conversation, Virginia first made the suggestion in the context of planning a capital campaign. Stephanie saw the connection to the need to define public purposes.

And the president’s contribution? As usual, lifting the great ideas of others.

There are nuances we also understood as the idea evolved:

  • While we are most directly responsible to our Trustees as agents of the public and, in many other ways, to elected officials, we needed to go directly to those to whom they are finally responsible. Legislators are asked to do much and want us to have clear purposes and demonstrable accomplishments driven by those purposes. But, they do not spend their days trying to define what our purposes should be. We needed to go to the broader publics whom they (and we) serve.
  • That public had to be broadly representative but composed of thoughtful people who would engage with us in genuine conversations. We rejected, for example, the idea of surveys. Complex and nuanced questions had to be posed, and we needed real conversation with thoughtful people to explore those questions.
  • We understood, also, that the role of the university really is to fulfill the public’s future purposes. We must anticipate and therein lies the traditional and critical responsibility of higher education to lead. In the private sector and a competitive environment, a first principle for successful entrepreneurship is to know the needs of your customer before your customer knows them. The same applies to us, perhaps with even more force as we prepare students for careers not yet existing and societal challenges not yet evident. And, how do you know what it is that will be needed by those you serve before they may fully realize it? By talking to people who, as leaders, are regularly obliged to be not just looking ahead but “looking ahead around corners.” We also needed to get to know those we serve as fully as possible. And, then, it is our job to kick our brains into gear.

So, in short order, Vice President Bowers and her capable staff took on and superbly executed a major initiative. We had conversations hosted and led by many in addition to me: governance leaders, deans, vice presidents, trustees, Foundation Board and Alumni Board leaders, …. We had conversations with parents, alumni, elected leaders (local and at the state level), employers of our graduates, respected opinion leaders from across various broadcast, print, and other media, leaders in K-12 education, prominent leaders in the private and in the not-for-profit sectors, leaders for the communities of color that enrich Washington, leaders in the labor movement,benefactors, and neighbors in Bellingham. We had many conversations in Whatcom County and around the state. And beyond, reaching as far as the other side of the continent to converse with alumni on the East Coast. Each participant was provided background prior to the conversation and those materials are available here.

Took a lot of effort on behalf of busy people. Also entailed some expense. I wish to give a special word of deep appreciation and my personal thanks to Jack and Jo Anne Bowman, who made a generous gift to the Foundation to cover the expenses incurred in conducting the 100 Conversations.

We also had great help from the Teaching Learning Academy. With the leadership of Dr. Carmen Werder, students in Communication 322 and 339 attended the conversations to take notes as well as to participate. And, Dr. Werder has provided a summary and analysis of what our TLA colleagues heard. We also gathered deans and other leaders on campus to begin a preliminary analysis of the 100 Conversations even as the conversations were ongoing. To the 100 Conversations Web Site, we will soon add notes from the conversation, the TLA summary, and the initial thinking of the campus leadership group. This will support wider campus brainstorming.

What have we heard?

A lot that is very positive. Western is highly regarded for the quality of the education we provide, particularly at the undergraduate level. And, for the contributions our graduates make: professionally and in their communities. People would regularly ask as a conversation was about to begin, “I bet you are looking forward to that 100th conversation.” Not really. The conversations were not a chore. They were inspiring.

We know the specialness we have here. But, I wish you could have shared the experiences I took away from the conversations: the knowledge that so many others also know we have something special here.

But, we did not have the conversations simply to massage our egos. We used them to help educate opinion leaders about Western and about the predicaments and tough choices public higher education faces in Washington. And, we listened.

On Friday of this week (May 7th), I will report on what we have learned. It will be in Seattle before a large group of “Western Advocates.” That report will be videocast live beginning at roughly 10 a.m. so it will be available on campus, too. The videocast, which will be about an hour long, will be available at And, we should learn further from the Western Advocates. I will be posing some tough questions to this audience of informed and respected friends of Western, using “clickers” to gather the responses of the 175 we expect to attend.

My mind is sill churning with ideas from the conversations and what may or may not make the report. But, here is a taste of what I will have to say:

  • One of the major findings is that there are significant disconnects between what we hear, in the 100 Conversations, people want of public higher education and what we hear in Olympia: in expectations for the preparation of students; in expectations employers have for graduates; in controlling price and costs; in accountability; in priorities for access within the public higher education sector; and in preparing students for “high demand” fields versus other contributions of higher education. All bear critically on our expectations for Western and our future public purposes. Friday’s Western Advocates presentation will have further details.
  • While Western is esteemed by those who know us, as the conversations extended further from those groups, we are still positively but only vaguely known. The conversations were an opportunity for these leaders to get to know us better. And, then, the conversations would often end with a comment like, “your only problem is that you are a hidden gem.” We must not, of course, remain hidden.
  • Somewhat related, we were regularly reminded by those who do know us that we are not clear about what distinguishes Western. What sets us apart? When, as we have said for some years, that we intend to be the best university of our type in the nation, just what is that “type”? Who are the peers we are measuring ourselves against?
  • We are better known and more highly regarded the farther from Bellingham were the conversations. One participant, having lived in our immediate area for many years, mentioned that she enrolled in one of our programs for its propinquity but only afterward did she realize it was one of the best in country. Another campus neighbor, having lived in the area for some years, wanted to know if we had Theater? Just samples of rather pervasive local fuzziness about what Western has and about the premier caliber of what Western is. Important messages if we are listening: and, not about them but about us and what we need to do better.
  • Our local area has huge potential if there is the leadership and vision to get us there. People would ask: why isn’t Bellingham a Eugene or Boulder? It has a premier university that could be a foundation for high-wage, Earth-friendly economic development with the attractions of world-class recreational opportunities, Pacific Rim location, and exquisite natural beauty.
  • Our strength is the quality of the education we provide. All universities assert that. The publics we talked with, though, really know it, lots of them, first-hand. It is that perception and those experiences, and not magazine rankings, that our “premier” status rests upon. It is why we are able to selectively choose the best applicants from a wide pool.
  • In too many conversations, we also heard something like: the quality of the classes my son or daughter is getting is the very best. The problem is, though, that they cannot always get a class they need in order to graduate on time. That is the greatest immediate threat to our “premier” status for, if that reputation builds, top students will stop coming.
  • Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships. Work closely and collaboratively with the two-year institutions and Northwest Indian College in the local area. But, don’t stop at the boundaries of the higher education sector; don’t stop at regional boundaries; don’t stop at international borders.
  • We, those participating in the 100 Conversations, need to be there with you, we want to help you move ahead. And, the 100 Conversations need to be just a start, not a conclusion, to a process of mutual engagement.

There is so much more and what I have offered here is a taste. The soon-to-be-up web site will have richer detail.

So, how is the information to be used and what comes next?

The University’s Role

I was sometimes asked about how many conversations we had among faculty, staff, and students. There were some. And faculty, staff, and student leaders hosted or led any number of conversations. But, I think the question misses the point of what our role is in the process.

Think of a research project. The conversations provide the data. Data say nothing until brains are engaged in interpretation. Meaning does not come from observation; it is a creative intellectual act undertaken by the researcher. Ours is the role of the researcher, figuring out what the data mean for us.

If you buy the research metaphor, (and if you are trained like I was to try to get grad students through doctoral programs in less than a decade), then you know that the properly formed research question is more important than anything else. What is the research question for the 100 Conversations? Borrowing from Trustee Dennis Madsen, I suggest in the Western Advocates presentation that the following four questions should be our focus:

  1. Why should the State of Washington be in the business of public baccalaureate education?
  2. What are the expectations the State of Washington has for its six public baccalaureate institutions?
  3. What should Western’s role be in this?
  4. What follows from that role as Western’s two or three overarching goals and what are the fundamental strategies for achieving them?

The first three questions pertain to answering the question that started all this: what should be the purposes of a publicly purposed university? And the last? It points us directly toward strategic planning.

The 100 Conversations provided lots of great ideas and suggestions at the tactical level. Specific actions and directions we should consider. But, it’s really on our shoulders to figure out what Western’s goals and strategies should be.

That is very timely. We have a strategic plan. It is time to update it.

That will be the subject of my next blog. And, lest you think we have got things more or less fitting cozily together, please do think again. Being the academic that I am, it will be time to question. And, I will be tossing a spanner into the strategic planning gears.

And, let me know what you think of the report to Western Advocates on the 100 Conversations.




Page Updated 01.24.2014