Opening Convocation

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

September 18, 2013

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


The Year Ahead

Turning to the year ahead, the most important work we will do is to continue to do what we have done so well: to be Washington's premier public undergraduate university.

When it comes to further efforts, last year's accomplishments also define an exciting agenda for the year ahead: advancing important beginnings, making now-funded proposals reality.


Listening to You

I am not going to talk about any of that.  It rests in your talented hands.  What might be newly addressed, though?  My suggestions come from listening to you.

Last year included a comprehensive external review of my performance. Faculty, staff, students, donors, administrators, alumni, local community members, elected leaders in key positions – thank you all who participated in the externally lead review.

The results, overall, were as strongly supportive as our external evaluator ever sees.  My satisfaction comes from serving you and so your positive assessment means a great deal to me.

But, more valuable to me, you suggested areas needing attention.

One specific observation I will share: to be more succinct in my communications - blog posts, email messages, convocation speeches.

<pauses, looks to Cyndie Shepard in audience>

Thank you, Cyndie.

<Cyndie holds up her purse to reveal large clock on the side.  Bruce steps forward, takes purse, holds it up, puts it on podium with clock face facing him.>

<with a smile> I am doing my best this morning. 


Turning to the more serious, you raised two matters.

One involved aspects of our efforts in Academic Affairs.  First I want to personally thank Dr. Catherine Riordan for her dedicated efforts and for all that she was able to accomplish; much of last year's stellar accomplishments trace directly to Catherine's priorities, collaborative leadership, and skillful execution.  I know you join me in appreciating those efforts, in respecting her decision to seek new career directions, and in wishing her the very best.

I am pleased that Dr. Brent Carbajal has stepped forward to provide leadership.  I charged Provost Carbajal with critically examining our current approaches in order to assure that we can meet your expectations for Academic Affairs leadership: committed to our core values and visionary, certainly, but also responsive, dependable, and effectively working across administrative divisions.  In his announcement last Friday you find initial evidence of his thoughtfully but promptly acting on that responsibility.

While on the subject of transitions, thank you Professor Stout, for not one, but two years of superb Faculty Senate leadership; Professor Neem, thank you for stepping forward to help sustain Western's excellence.  I am also deeply appreciative of all that UFWW President Professor Garfinkle contributed through countless hours of largely uncompensated leadership; I look forward to working with incoming UFWW President Professor Lambert on the commitments to Western's vitality for which we share responsibility.


Fleshing Out Our Vision for the Future Western

I said you shared, through the external review process, two major concerns.  The second – and this is where I will focus the remainder of my remarks – involves clarifying Western’s strategic direction.

Your concerns, as relayed by the external evaluator, are twofold: to have a clearer sense of where Western is going and to make sure that sense is more broadly understood across the university – that it gets beyond the vice presidents, deans, and faculty and staff leaders.

I have spent much of the summer thinking about this.  I have explored it in conversations with many others.

When I asked Faculty Senate leadership how to proceed, their immediate answer was: please, no more revising of the strategic plan, no more work on branding, no more building of pillars for our fund raising campaign.  Those are all fine as far as they go.

Our thought was that those earlier efforts provide the skeleton.  We need to add some flesh.

My discipline teaches me that leadership, where the organization is complicated and the environment is changing and the people are talented and engaged, is best done by asking questions rather than offering answers.  The questions must take us outside our zones of comfort.

So, I am going to ask six questions.  They are not my questions; they come from listening to you.  Hundreds of you, at various levels of the University, are already at work on them.  Still, I believe the way we answer them bears directly upon Western’s future.  So, I want to raise them to a level where we all may contribute.

My answers matter not at all.  Your answers matter entirely.  That is because of the powerful insights and innovative thinking you, collectively and thousands strong, bring.  That is because you are Western Washington University.  That is because the questions bear critically on what Western will become.  Do become involved in their answer.


Our Future Student Body

Consider what I believe to be the greatest threat to brighter futures for Washington: a grossly insufficient capacity to provide baccalaureate education. 

In the knowledge-based and flattened globe of today, other nations get it.  In the developed and developing world, the generation coming into adulthood is better prepared than is the generation that preceded it.

There is an outlier.  It is us.  The coming generation in the United States is going to be less well educated than the generation that preceded it.

The US as a whole is failing.  Within the US, where does the state of Washington rank? Near last.  Around 46th among the 50 states.

You have previously heard me decry that threat.  You may not have heard me as forcefully point to a critical part of the solution. 

I spent several weeks this summer meeting with leaders of many universities in Asia.  There was one common denominator: they are all hungry for more international students.  For the same academically important reasons that motivate us.  But, also, as a matter of survival: survival of their universities, survival of their national economies.

They point to a 25% over-capacity in higher education—they have the seats, but not the applicants.  Universities are being closed; more will be.  They tell me that businesses and industries, hungry for developed talent, are running scared.

Why is this happening?  It’s the demographic collapse.  With decades of smaller family size, college-age folks are no longer out there in the usual numbers.  The same problems are also found in much of Europe, by the way.

The problem will only become more severe as the baby boomers (you are looking at one) retire.

What about the United States?  We face the same decline in average family size for much of our population. 

We also have an edge. We are growing.  Through immigration and through the different family size choices that currently characterize certain of these more recent arrivals.

In a sentence, and there is really nothing novel about this in the great American experience: our pluralism is our strength … and our salvation if we have the wisdom to seize it.

Therein lies the reason why Western fights for the “Dream Act,” in order that undocumented students could qualify for federal and state need-based financial aid.  Our Associated Student partners were in the lead and did a superb job.  Progress was made – President Obama’s Executive Order suspending deportation of undocumented students has been very helpful.   But neither the federal nor the state Dream Act made it over the goal line.

Think about that.  I don’t care what your politics are – liberal or conservative … tea party or pot party – in these growing populations we have a powerful competitive edge.   Cashing in that advantage is a matter of pure self-interest ... for us, for our state, for our nation. 

Education is how we cash in that advantage.

Understandably, the young people brought to our shores by their parents may call it the “Dream Act.”  For those of us in positions of privilege who wish to sustain our well being, it should be called the “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee” Act.

Bringing Western into the picture, there are several questions we then need to discuss.

State colleges and universities, historically and around the country, have been points of access for first generation college students.  Here, Western is an outlier.  We have a reputation as a selective and premier institution, and our students are more likely to come from the upper middle class families where parents have gone to college. 

In Washington, where we draw 90% of our students, high school graduation numbers have recently declined.  They are projected to now remain flat. Those flat lines mask a shift: the strata of high school grads from which we have traditionally drawn our students are shrinking; they are being replaced by those coming from different socioeconomic strata. 

How do we respond?  Your call in the end.  My feeling: Enthusiastically.  We enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to live our vision: applying Western’s many strengths to critical state needs.

There are implications for the academic programs we offer, for the academic support services we must then have, for our approaches to financial aid, for many, many aspects of Western as we known it today.

What does this mean for our current niche as Washington’s premier public undergraduate university?  I see the opportunity, if we do it right, to even more proudly live that role. 

And, there is a simple matter of our institutional well-being: if we continue to draw largely upon our traditional sources for students it means we would face the same sort of demographic collapse I found in Asia.  Not tomorrow.  Today.  Our selectivity, already somewhat declining will, in an ever more competitive environment, quickly disappear.  We will struggle to find students.  Students whose tuition has become so very large a part of our budget.  Fewer students will mean fewer of us.

So, there is question one: How can we most effectively respond, university-wide, to the changing demography of Washington high school graduates and transfers?


Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Page Updated 11.27.2013