Opening Convocation

President Bruce Shepard’s Prepared Remarks to the Faculty and Staff

September 18, 2013

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3



Cyndie joins in a warm welcome back.  And in our congratulations to the award winners. We share with you great pride in the broad Western excellence they represent.

Forty-three years ago, then President Jerry Flora started his “Address to the Faculty” with a review of the high points of the last year.

He listed fiscal hardships, a tent city in front of Old Main, the beginnings of Huxley College of the Environment.  Also, in Jerry’s words, “New parking regulations (that) were developed and modified,…  and modified, … and modified.”

He concluded the review, saying,

It has been a damned difficult quarter.  I did not enjoy the way the calendar year ended but am very glad that it did.  The remainder of the year will not be easy.  I wish I could speak glowingly and optimistically about our prospects for additional funding, but I cannot.

My habit is candor also.  So, I really mean what I say: Western had a great 2012-13. And, the year ahead is full of initiatives to move forward ... and questions to together ponder for they bear on Western’s future direction.


The Year Just Concluded

Western’s Annual Report, just out, provides a record of last year's accomplishments.  The URL is on the back page of your program.

It is a lengthy accounting of so much achieved.  A record to celebrate.

Accomplishing lots, though, could mean little accomplished.  Little accomplished unless what we do measures up against our core mission, our values, our vision.

The yardstick for so measuring can also be found in today's program: the mission statement and strategic plan.

I think the shared values are the most important part of that plan.  Exceptional people, leading edge inquiry, liberal arts the core, building professional skills, embracing diversity, stewards of resources

Did we walk that talk last year?

Protecting our strengths comes first; nothing can be achieved if we are not strong.

Western’s strength is its people.  It is you.  Assuring that continuing strength is paramount, and so competitive compensation has been our top priority: yours, mine, our Trustees.  While further progress is necessary, today we can celebrate the increases in place for faculty, professional staff, and classified colleagues.

True, we were criticized for this.  On editorial pages, from the Governor’s Office, and even from some of our higher education colleagues on other campuses.  Some predicted that funding for public 4-year higher ed would suffer as a punitive legislative response to Western’s investment in our outstanding faculty. 

We did the right thing.  So did the legislature: for the first time in five years, the state operating budget includes significant reinvestment in four-year public higher education.

Was Western penalized for doing the right thing?  Average increase in funding for the six publics was 12%.  Second highest increase, at the UW, was 17%.  Highest increase of all was 28%.  And, that was at Western Washington University.

Yes, we took some risks – politically, fiscally.  But, that's the territory leaders must occupy and Western is nothing if it is not a leader.

Western is also strong because of the caliber of our students.  Our strength depends, then, on their being able to afford to attend.  We have covered our compensation commitments along with a number of initiatives, all without raising resident undergraduate tuition one dime.

Protecting our strengths and living our values also means assuring the strength of the liberal arts core. 

To understand the truth of this enduring commitment, we need look no further than our many successful alumni.  There is Jack Bowman. After graduating from Western, Jack’s first job was teaching music in the Ferndale public schools.  He went on to a highly successful career as a leader in a major international pharmaceutical company.  He credits this success to the critical thinking abilities he developed as part of his liberal arts education at Western.

There is Julie Larson-Green, top Microsoft executive. Her major at Western? Economics.

There is the alumna, recently retired Boeing senior vice president.  She majored in German while at Western.

And, there is the alum I met in Tokyo two months ago.  From Kirkland as I recall, he fell in love with the Chinese language while at Western. An East Asian Studies major, he had no particular career plans when, two weeks after graduation, a former room mate called from Japan telling him to come to come on over; Japan was really a great place to be.  Selling his Datsun to get money for the plane ticket, he grabbed his backpack and headed to the East.  His passion for language and for writing took him to his current position: the editor of a major Asian financial publication headquartered in Tokyo.

What these examples illustrate to me is that the value of a liberal arts education is not simply as great as ever.  It is greater than ever.

Our students, by and large, get it.  They vote with their feet. Enrollments in the liberal arts and sciences remain strong as ever. 

Our outstanding professional programs get it.  To a degree I have not seen elsewhere, they explicitly tout the strength of their programs as based upon Western’s strong liberal arts and sciences core.

This all explains why, last year, despite continuing budget difficulties and all the faddish clamoring for one shiny panacea or another, we doubled down on our commitment to our core:

  • After far too long a hiring freeze, we have, beginning last year, now filled 60 permanent faculty positions.  Exactly 75% are in the liberal arts and sciences.  And, by all reports, we were able to attract outstanding new faculty.
  • In part this is because we addressed issues of competitive compensation in the contract with our UFWW partners.  The bulk of the funding added for salaries, chair compensation, and related matters go to sustaining the strength of the liberal arts and sciences.
  • Through last spring's budget process, we added funding for over 30 additional faculty positions and most all of these will be in the liberal arts and sciences.
  • We funded growing demand in the sciences – they have seen a 40% increase in majors over last 6 years.  And, we did this without taking the funds from the programs that – given our overall constant enrollment – had to have seen enrollment decreases.
  • We sustained a hallmark of Western’s excellence: relying upon tenure and tenure track faculty to a degree not found at comparable universities.  Actually, we have made improvements here while others were shifting more and more to adjuncts.

So, we took care of the core excellence of Western: our people, students importantly included, and the liberal arts core. 

How about living other of Western’s commitments?  Let’s go down the list:

We are committed to be “A place to build professional skills and abilities” 

  • Funded to move three of our top notch Engineering Technology programs to what Washington’s evolving economy now needs – mainline Engineering.
  • Funded to double the number of Computer Science graduates.

We strive for "A collaborative environment …. working in support of the mission”

  • Funded the Institute for Energy Studies, a 3-college initiative bringing together disciplinary, interdisciplinary and professional strengths to focus on a major global concern.  Only Stanford has something remotely similar.
  • Across the campus, colleges, academic support units, our Foundation Board, and Advancement built a compelling “Western Stands for Washington” campaign, which is, by the way, exceeding all expectations in its fundraising success.

Western is to be "A responsible steward of resources”

  • Implemented a wide range of sustainability actions ranging from those involving bottled water and locally sourced “real foods" (thanks to leadership from our students), to an energy and water conservation project spanning 28 buildings.
  • Initiated planning to this year collaboratively host the state’s first Higher Education Sustainability Conference.

We are a university aspiring to be "distinguished by a sense of place and community”

  • Woodring faculty, successfully competing for a major grant, will work with local school districts to innovatively improve student achievement and the preparation of current and future teachers.
  • In partnership with Olympic College, established a much-needed presence in Poulsbo for those on the Olympic Peninsula underserved by four year higher ed.
  • Initiated an RN to BSN degree program badly needed locally and statewide.

And a Western value that comes closest to my heart: “An environment that welcomes and embraces diversity”

  • Admitted and about to welcome the most diverse incoming WWU class yet, far more diverse than is the state of Washington.
  • Formed the President’s Taskforce on Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity that then promptly brought forward recommendations for real, tangible change, now implemented.
  • Acted to address a federal tax penalty faced by same sex couples while other Washington entities were backing away from acting on such a fundamental matter of fairness.
  • Publicly and positively spoke out on the Marriage Equality bill, the only Washington public higher education institution to so do.
  • Addressed a long list of accessibility needs.
  • Gave funding priority to five major diversity initiatives.

A small sampling of what you achieved.

Think about the tough times of prior years.  We came through better than simply “intact.”  I believe that we, really you, blazed a path through those challenges that, in many areas, have us “stronger than ever.”

It is important to remember why we fared well:

  1. We protected and invested further in the core strengths upon which all else depends: our people, the liberal arts. 
  2. We stayed together and on message.
  3. We organized in ways unusual within higher education and then were heard.
  4. We were highly regarded for the quality of our programs—and seen as a place where further investments would yield similarly high quality results.
  5. We, better perhaps than other institution, brought to Olympia well thought out proposals responsive to state legislators’ priorities. 

I would be remiss if I did not also recognize the real legislative leadership that stood up for higher education and for Western through a very long process.  They all deserve our sincere thanks. 

And, of course, we owe Sherry Burkey, our Associate Vice President of Government Relations, our gratitude for her dedication and effectiveness.  She was not alone, and I also convey our thanks to faculty, student, union, Trustee, Alumni Board, private sector, and Foundation Board leadership as well as Western Advocates.


Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Page Updated 11.27.2013