Opening Convocation

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

September 18, 2013

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Affordable Access to Quality

Closely related are questions of access, affordability, and quality. As I must constantly emphasize, the costs per student at Western have been declining over the last 15 years. You have been ever more efficient.

What the public sees, though, is not our costs but our price.  Tuition.  And, that went up dramatically as state support decreased even more dramatically.  Five years ago, the state covered over 60% of the costs of instruction at Western.  Last year, that had dropped to under 30%.  With the recent reinvestment, that figure will grow to 32% for the biennium we just entered.

Many leaders in our state recognize that our capacity for tuition increases is about exhausted.  And their choice to reinvest in our institution is a great beginning, but we should recognize that, as good as the budget was for us, it is still a budget held together with chewing gum and paper clips. 

Our state’s revenue structure is fundamentally flawed, designed as it is for an economy that no longer exists.  In the last legislative session there were some signs that our elected representatives have begun to recognize this and have begun to consider fundamental changes to our revenue system.  The warp and woof of this conversation, along with the state’s response to health care challenges and supreme court-mandated investment in K-12 education will have a tremendous impact on Western’s future.

And, remember, this discussion of revenue and reinvestment takes place in a state context where the growing populations of high school graduates come from families of lower economic means and from cultures where the assumption of debt is anathema.

We can be proud of the fact that Washington ranks number 1 among the states in the size of its commitment to need-based aid.  But the feds are the gorilla in the financial aid jungle and you know about the pressures to scale back federal spending.

As challenging as affordability and access may be, we must always emphasize that those two concerns alone are insufficient.  We can easily take care of affordability and access…if we don't care about what the students (and what the state of Washington) are getting.  Whenever we speak about "affordable access" we must make sure we add the phrase "to quality." 

So, there is a second question:  What can we do, right here at Western, to keep access to a quality college education affordable?



Every year, I have stood here and said, “if Western is as White in the years ahead as it is today, we will have failed as a university.”  I know you think the same, for last year you met those words with a standing ovation.

This is the third question and I put it just that simply: how do we make sure, in the years ahead, we are not as White as we are today?

We are making progress.  Our entering student body includes 26% who are from communities of color.  Our graduation rates for students of color are good.  We – really, you – continue to make progress, slow but progress nonetheless, in the absolutely essential diversification of our faculty and staff.  For new faculty hires, 13% were colleagues of color; for staff, it was 17%

It is also true that, across the nation, there is increasing research on what works and what does not work.  What can we learn from those experiences?  And, there are changes in the very conceptualization of issues, approaches, and the underlying dynamics of what now is termed “Inclusive Excellence.”

I hope you took time to read the surveys of campus climate as reported by our students, our faculty, our professional staff, and our classified colleagues.  If not, they are located on the Equity, Inclusivity, and Diversity Taskforce web page.  We are a campus where, today, 2013, the way our colleagues experience Western Washington University depends upon their race, their gender, their sexual orientation;  in their experiences with prejudice and discrimination; in their satisfactions with their work environment; and in the impediments to their success.

I know you share the aspiration that we are to be a campus, a community, where every one of us is enabled to reach our fullest potential.

We have many, many efforts underway in this arena, each incrementally added over decades.  With this year’s budget, we initiated several more.

Time for a strategic review and reassessment.

Here--and I cannot stress this strongly enough--progress is the responsibility of each and every one of us.


Extended Education

Western has long been known for the quality of our traditional, campus-based undergraduate programs.  Yet the need for life-long learning is genuinely growing.  People need education where they are in their lives, in their careers, and in the State of Washington. 

Panaceas are also being promised: for-profit higher education, much of dubious quality; online universities like the Western Governors University, with seeming single digit or low teens graduation rates; and two-year institutions that rely upon 80% adjuncts laying claim to become 4 year universities.  And, there are the MOOC’s that proliferate with motives, near as I can tell, having something to do with institutional aggrandizement.

It is a very competitive environment even if we disregard the fads, the unrealistic promises, and the charlatans.  Well-regarded universities are extending their education across thousands of miles to meet demand in Seattle.  And, in Bellingham.

Here I find a fourth question: When it comes to our goal of applying strengths to Washingtons needs, what should we give priority to doing off of our campus?

We have undertaken any number of initiatives.  Indeed, with declining state support, these initiatives that return funds to cover their costs were about the only place we could innovate and expand the living of our mission. 

The main factors we examined in deciding what to do off campus were simple: did it meet a need with a strong Western program? Did it support our reputation for quality? Could we do it in a self-support way that did not weaken campus-based efforts?

With the environment rapidly changing and with many more opportunities out there than we can reasonably respond to, we must now be more strategic.  What should be our priorities, our strategies, our criteria?


A Globally Engaged University

From my very first conversations as I was getting to know you, you have told me that we need to more effectively internationalize Western.  Progress is being made and I very much appreciate the leadership provided Academic Affairs, in Enrollment and Student Services, through the newly reorganized Center for International Studies, and across the campus. 

Here, though, is another area where it is not about simply doing more of what traditionally had been done, for the international environment has dramatically changed. 

The purposes of international exchanges grew first out of the World Wars and then the Cold War: desires for stability and peace through increased understanding.  Those wars are over yet the world is just as threatening.

Indeed, could it be that international understanding itself has very little relevance to emerging threats to international stability?   More important today are issues of social justice worldwide, planetary ecocide, and fundamentalist repudiation of what we in universities consider our intellectual heritage from the humanist revolution, the enlightenment, and the scientific revolution.  What then should drive the efforts of a globally engaged university?  Seems to me it is something far deeper - and with higher stakes -- than cross cultural appreciation.

Perhaps the clearest change has been from what I think of as a “hub and spoke” model where the US was at the hub and we sent and received students along spokes.  Today, it is a complex network and the US is but one of many, many nodes.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that any university wanting to stay at the cutting edge--read WWU--must be immersed in this international web – and not just through faculty and student exchanges but in all aspects of its mission.

Do note, though, with the hub and spoke model now history, we no longer are in charge.  If we are to play, and we absolutely must, it will be by norms and standards shared worldwide and not ours alone.

Without the drag of a huge investment in traditional international programs, Western has an edge here if we take the time to understand what global engagement means in the emerging context.  Reaching those understandings frames the fifth question.

Question five then emerges: How is Western going to play in a future where leading universities, of necessity, are fully globally engaged?


The Liberal Arts and Sciences

And, the sixth question?

Question six: What, in the years ahead, are to be the roles of the liberal arts and sciences at Western?

For me, there’s really no question here at all!  Earlier you heard me speak of how we have, even in tough times, doubled down on what is and must continue to be our enduring core. You have heard me assert that the liberal arts are more relevant than ever.

What are the liberal arts?  One way to answer that question is historical, and by enumeration.  In the ancient Greece, the answer was simple: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The medieval university added arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.  The Humanist Revolution introduced language, philosophy, and more.  Today, in most common usage, we mean the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences, the fine arts.  Basically, it has come to mean everything but the professions.

When we address the question of the role of the liberal arts and sciences at Western, there’s the very first matter to settle.  What are they? And what are the qualities that make them our academic heart and soul.

The importance of the liberal arts is written in the accomplishments of our alumni, as I have already illustrated.  Our students, voting by where they take their classroom seats, similarly understand the centrality.  Among the corporate leaders I regularly meet with, the necessity of a strong liberal arts education is well understood.  Much more than, frankly, is sometimes the case in the State Capitol where, ironically, the diplomas on the walls typically name a liberal arts major.

I recently received a wonderful letter from a Western colleague.  He is pondering the question of how to explain the value of the humanities to students.  Perhaps impossible in most cases, he suggests:

Unless we can find the magic formula for explaining how a liberal arts education and an education in the humanities especially can engender an awareness and the ability (and not to be underestimated, the resolve and stubbornness) in young people to be who they are and create their own lives!  Not a life foisted upon them by circumstance and passivity but one they’ve themselves wrought out of circumstance and opportunity; one where they use language rather than have it use them; where they have learned to make connections between seemingly disparate experiences, events, and expressions and turn them into something meaningful; where they have learned to see the world from the perspectives of others; where empathy and some bedrock ethical sensibilities – not just memorized rules – are developed as strengths and a deeply felt part of the quality of life; and that is buoyed by the enjoyment of music, literature, gardens and mountains and the sea, finely crafted and healthily rooted ideas, a bunch of smart guys swapping lies, and the like.

So eloquently stated.  Throughout my career I have put it more prosaically: the liberal arts are the liberating arts.

Yet outside the university, the STEM drumbeat continues.  Do we ignore it?  Is it a question of better communicating the relevance of the liberal arts and sciences?  Are there implications for how our liberal arts and sciences programs can best evolve? After all, in the liberal arts and sciences of today, we are a long way from the Trivium of classical antiquity and the Quadrivium of medieval times.

The question of the role of the liberal arts and sciences at Western will figure importantly in our internal consideration of proposals and opportunities brought forward by our academic programs: e.g., future curricula, general education revision, minimum credit requirements for certain professional programs, degree requirements more generally, and even some of the specifics of our global engagement. 

Last year, the Faculty Senate, in what I thought were superb discussions, critically reviewed two proposals brought forward by our academic programs to add programs with professional and applied emphases.  More will undoubtedly come.  Those of our colleagues considering such future proposals deserve to have their efforts to innovate informed by our discussion of this sixth question.

Even if you accept my premise – that the centrality of the liberal arts at Western is not open to question – the opportunity to collegially discuss what the liberal arts and sciences are and are to be at Western has great intrinsic value.  The Faculty Senate's interest in doing a comprehensive revision of general education strikes me as an important venue for such discussion.


How Are We Going to Answer the Questions?

You advised me of the need to better flesh out Western’s direction.  My approach: not offering answers.  Rather, bringing to the attention of us all, the important questions various of you have already been asking. And seeking answers to.

In my first months here, I had 90 conversations internally, the next year it was “100 Conversations” with external groups.  All proved helpful.  Now, I think we need a small number of groups engaged in sustained discussion of fundamental questions such as the six I derived from listening to you.

There are already groups who have been at work on aspects of these questions.  Hundreds of you and we will not duplicate those efforts. 

Still, do think about those six questions, pick a favorite, and get involved.  Opportunities to become engaged will be coming.

We vest planning and strategic budgeting in Academic Affairs on the assumption that it is our academic core that should drive all planning and budgeting.  Even as I look forward to personally participating, Provost Carbajal will have responsibility to form and enable the groups and the discussions necessary to help flesh out the skeleton.  UPRC will play a role in listening to the groups, in obtaining all of our reactions, and in then forming recommendations on possible refinements to our strategic directions.



I opened by drawing from the words President Emeritus Flora used on an occasion like this.  While blunt about the challenges of 43 years ago, as I believe I also have been on matters now facing us, he concluded that earlier address with these fine words:

“I urge us all to reach for the stars.  Let Western be known as a place where nothing is more important than the business of learning.  And let us do it well.”

Jerry, my friend, it could not be better said.  True 43 years ago; true for Western today and tomorrow.

To all assembled, Have a great year!


Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Page Updated 11.27.2013