Bruce's Blog

Jan. 28, 2014

What do you mean by saying, "If we are as white in ten years as we are today, Western will have failed as a university?

Well, first, I did say it. In just those words.  I said it at my inaugural opening convocation speech six years ago.  I have said it every year since.

Recently, that assertion was included in a communication that went out to a wider audience.  I received a number of concerned emails as a result.  Most thoughtful, not all.

No surprise.  My word choice was intended to be provocative.  Lately, I have been noticing, in our trade press, with increasing frequency and stridency, warnings much the same as those I was issuing six years ago.  Last Sunday, the Chronicle of Higher Education carried an article titled, “Bracing for Demographic Shifts, Colleges Face Tough Trade-Offs.”  The next day, the Chronicle carried a piece in which a former Director of the U.S. Bureau of the Census issued warnings about the survivability prospects facing those universities that are currently mostly white.

So, why am I again raising this subject?

I am increasingly concerned about our understanding of the issues ahead, for that understanding must be pervasive in order to enable Western’s critically important capacity to then change

And change we must.

And, if we don’t?  Well, I probably should have said it this way: 

In the decades ahead, should we be as white as we are today, we will be relentlessly driven toward mediocrity; or, become a sad shadow of our current self. 

Many do get it.  But, too often, I encounter behaviors and communications that suggest to me that folks have not thought through the implications of what is ahead for us or, more perniciously, assume we can continue unchanged.

Understanding requires conversations on our campus that are wide and deep, thoughtful and informed.  And, if being provocative helps stimulate those conversations well, then, guess I am merely doing my job.

Several of those who wrote to me of their concern about my statement that “we fail if we remain overwhelmingly white” thought I was advocating a policy of “letting in” minorities and thereby keeping out "equally deserving whites."  I thought that strange, for no such plan had ever occurred to me.  Then, I spotted a reason for the confusion.

Some apparently thought we have a choice here: that we can continue as we are.  So, one might then conclude that any change to more reflect the diversity of our state would require manipulation of our admissions policies.

But, continuing as we are is not an option.

When I say "failed" I do mean it in a critically important moral and ethical sense.  I also mean it, though, in a very practical, tangible, do-we-survive-as-a-public-university-worthy-of-the-name sense.  And, it is those practical, self-interested rationales I will develop.

The key is in the demography and, apparently, not all are up to speed on this.  Start with these facts: we proudly serve Washington by making sure 90% of our students come from Washington; high school graduation numbers in our state are flat and are projected to remain so; within those flat graduation numbers, the percentage coming from families from diverse ethnic and racial groups where parents have not gone to college is rapidly increasing.

That means the number of high school graduates we have traditionally drawn upon are rapidly decreasing.

Add to that the reality that we are entering an even more highly competitive environment when it comes to attracting students.

It's not about keeping whites out, then.  The group from which we have traditionally drawn will no longer be out there in the numbers we have previously relied upon. 

It is about whether we will have the wisdom, the culture, the commitment, to be able to attract a sufficient number of students from diverse backgrounds.

Attract numbers sufficient for what?  Well, first there is our mission and the well-being of the state we exist to serve.  The whole world is competing for the developed talent essential to replace the retiring baby boomers.  The U.S. starts behind many nations in this competition, as we are now an outlier, internationally, with the coming U.S. generation less well educated than that one that preceded it.  And, among the 50 states, Washington lags at the very rear.  Our state needs more and more baccalaureate graduates.  Western graduates importantly among them.

But, I’m going to bring it down to where we live.  We need to attract numbers of students (diverse or otherwise) sufficient to pay our bills. Over 80% of our operating budget is made up of salaries – yours and mine. With tuition now making up 70% of our costs of instruction, fewer students mean fewer of us.

And, to be even more direct: not fewer presidents, fewer faculty.  If enrollment size goes down, then it is the variable costs that are reduced, not the largely fixed administrative costs.  For "variable costs" read mostly "faculty."

That means fewer curricular choices, more generic curricula, a much different and much weaker Western.

We could choose, I suppose, to go the route of being a much smaller, elite-serving, almost entirely liberal arts college.  That could be made to work financially.  But, it is sure not why I (and I am sure you) chose to be in public higher education.  It would be a total abandonment of our admirable mission.

One choice we do not have: to stick our heads in the sand. 

Were we to do so, we could go awhile longer, watching tuition revenues decline, slowly at first but then rapidly.  And, with revenue declines, we would start on a relentless slide toward mediocrity.  Probably would be able to make it past the time I decide to retire, perhaps the same for you.  But, those who follow would justifiably curse us for our irresponsibility.

Note the direction of this causal arrow: Should we fail in our efforts to reflect the diversity increasingly enriching our state, then Western is relentlessly driven toward mediocrity. 

And that conclusion follows just from a simple and undeniable dollars-and-cents analysis of our future budgetary alternatives.  But, consider additional and more academic implications: they powerfully reinforce exactly the same conclusion.

First is the compelling research linking academic quality to diversity.  Compelling enough to persuade the majority of a mostly conservative Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger that race may be used as a factor in the admissions process.  Not to benefit diverse applicants; but to benefit the quality of the education available to all admitted.  As a WWU colleague recently put it, “there is no quality higher education experience without diversity.”

Then, of course, there is our obligation to prepare our students to effectively and collaboratively work – on the job, in their communities – in a state and a nation soon to be majority minority.  Our classrooms must be test beds, even cauldrons, where those abilities are learned, practiced, celebrated.  But that cannot be if the classrooms are unreflective of the world our students will be entering.

Do note one critical point: these contributions to the quality of our learning environment do not automatically happen simply as a result of numbers, as a consequence of there being diversity.  We will need to invest ourselves in studying the research and learning the best practices whereby statistical diversity becomes enhanced academic preparation for all students.

So, we must thoughtfully, strategically prepare for a future where we embrace a coming college age population that, as I have already pointed out, will be majority minority.

What should Western be doing?  Well, you probably know my leadership style by now.  It is to pose questions rather than to provide answers.  Questions that take us out of our zones of comfort.  That is what I am trying to do here. That is so you, the thousands of faculty, staff, students, alums, and all who are Western can then come up with answers far more thoughtful, far more creative, far more effective than any “answers” those few of us in Old Main might suggest, top down.

Still, some things are obvious.

We have much going for us: the caliber and commitment of our people and our resultant reputation for the quality of our undergraduate programs, leading edge curricula, our retention rates, our best-of-class graduation rates. 

Our location is an asset for those who are attracted to all that Bellingham has to offer.  But, who are so attracted?  Go down to Boulevard Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon, walk out along the boardwalk toward Fairhaven and then count the number of people of color you pass. Not many.

Leave the city limits, though, and look at the ethnic composition of the more rural Whatcom and Skagit elementary schools.  There you find exploding diversity.  And, importantly, Western initiatives and major efforts, largely out of Woodring College of Education, reaching into those schools.  Put that down on the "assets" side: both the innovative WWU outreach and the exploding diversity.

Our Trustees are helping lead the way.  From their many walks of life they clearly see the transforming nature of the Washington in which Western must remain a leader.  And, in the performance expectations they specifically set for me – and through me, for us – there is no higher priority than to succeed in embracing the changes now looming.  Their leadership is, again, an important asset.

The costs of attending Western loom large on the "liabilities" side.  Western's net tuition (tuition minus average financial support) is high when compared to other Washington public universities.  And, currently, undocumented students, a significant percentage of the demographic shift in our coming high school graduates, do not qualify for either federal or state need-based aide.

Those “cost” liabilities do not worry me most.  We and our state can find our way through them as the handwriting on the wall becomes increasingly impossible for our state (and nation) to ignore.  We can because we must.  And, that is the easier part.

It is our internal capacity to change at the rate required that I find myself most thinking about during those 3:00 a.m. staring-at-the-ceiling times.

It begins with our culture.  Lately, I have been hearing the occasional comment that gives me pause; for example, expressing a concern about the Admissions Office letting standards slip.  (Facts are, mean entering high school GPA's have remained relatively constant over the last six years, but dispersion—standard deviation—has increased as we take more students at both the higher and lower end.) 

But I want to shout, "get those heads out of the sand."  Unless you want us to choose the path of the much smaller, elite-serving university I earlier rejected, our incoming students are more and more going to be coming from families where parents have not gone to college and where academic preparation will likely not have been as high a priority.

These future students have all the smarts, all the potential, the invaluable active minds driven to change lives.  But they will be testing our ability to perform in new ways.  Part of the cultural change will be to go from bragging about (or worrying about) what we start with to bragging about the levels to which we take our students.

Nor are we about to lower our graduation standards.  Rather, we do what will be the harder work of getting our students of the future to the standards we set for them.  And, for ourselves.  The same best-of-class graduation rates.  The same well prepared graduates so highly sought by employers.

This will mean investing, continually over the next decade, in expanded and different student and academic support services.  We began doing so this biennium if you tracked our budget decisions.

It will mean continuing to diversify our faculty and staff, for the research is clear here: having diverse faculty and staff is critical to attracting diverse students and to the success of those students once here.  I am pleased to see the progress we have made as we have begun hiring again.  We cannot let up and, indeed, must do even better.

Why the research results indicating this link between staff composition and student success?  Ask a student of color what they mean when they say they need to see faculty and staff “who look like them.”  Do they really mean physically look like them?  Provost Carbajal recently asked that question (in Spanish) of Hispanic students at a school in the Skagit Valley.  The answers went something like, “No, not someone who physically looks like us but rather someone for whom we do not have to constantly explain ourselves.”

That points the way to another opportunity open to us all: that, however we may look physically, our students find, when working with us, that they do not have to feel like they must explain themselves to us.  Constantly. 

The jargon is that we be “critically culturally conscious.”  Like any set of skills, such cultural consciousness is learned and then refined through practice; scholars, doing the research, have distilled what it means; we currently teach it to some of our students as we prepare them for success in various fields; and we can learn it ourselves.

We must continue our commitment to build the pipeline - to ensure that the students who are out there are prepared to succeed at Western. We do so through partnerships with the local K-12 and 2-year schools, through the ways in which we prepare teachers, in our several commitments to mentoring, to our efforts to raise the aspirations of those whose parents have not gone to college.  Our efforts must be sustained and pursued for the long term.

But, it is really important to understand where responsibility for success rests. It rests with all of us.  And that was part of my concern about earlier statements I mentioned such as those concerning the assumed failing of the Admissions Office.  This is not, primarily, an Admissions Office responsibility.  The responsibility belongs to us all.

There is a useful data set called the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).  Measures students’ views and experiences with everything you can imagine, from the quality of gen ed courses to the food in the dining halls.  And, these data can be merged with academic records.

I once asked an Institutional Research guru (back when I was chancellor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) to find for me, the NSSE variable, among the several hundred available, that best discriminated (in a statistical sense) between the students of color we retained and the students of color we did not retain.  The answer: a scale labeled, "The Faculty Care about Me as an Individual."  Those students of color who felt that way stayed; those that did not so feel, left.  And, the caring was not touchy-feely stuff. The items comprising the scale were things like: "Faculty stay after class to answer my questions."

Count this on WWU’s asset side, for our faculty and staff care deeply about enabling the success of our students.

And, that is why, when I do find myself staring at the ceiling at 3:00 in the morning, I am optimistic.  Because I know you.  Because I know of your commitment to our students and our mission as a public university.  And, to changing lives.

Once the power of you who are Western is fully engaged, success is assured.

The demographic change is here. We all need to be equally up to speed on this.

Join me in helping to make it so!

And, with some urgency, for the changes required of us will come sooner rather than later.  Change at any university, particularly cultural change, requires time, patience, collegial support, trust in each other, and significant effort.

This being Western, we want to be leading, not following; steering rather than being towed along.  Or worse, towed under.

And, finally, what about those concerns I heard from folks who reacted to my original comment; those who feared we are going to be keeping out “qualified whites.”  Well, whites are being kept out today.  By consequences of class and by decades of state policy.

It is as much about class as it is about race.  Washington has chosen to support one of the very smallest pipelines to baccalaureate education in the United States (48th out of 50 last I checked). For decades Washington’s policy has been to educate our sons and daughters just well enough to go to work for those who come from out-of-state to take the better paying jobs. 

This we must change, for our state’s wealth is best measured by the developed talent of its people.  All its people, whatever their race or ethnicity.    And, as we reach into those diverse, lower socioeconomic “Title I” schools to raise aspirations and improve preparation to succeed in the modern world, fact is that a majority of the young people whose lives we are touching are white.

We need to keep the discussions going.  And with wide understanding of the choices and the changes we face, Western's full engagement will then follow.

We will be living our vision of applying our many strengths to meet the critical needs of Washington.  We will be ever more proud to be Western. 



Page Updated 02.03.2014