Preparing the Future
February 12, 2009
Cyndie joins me in extending a warm welcome to you all. And, a genuine “thank you,” for the warm welcome you have given us.
An initial word of warning: my normal rule is to never make formal remarks longer than 25 minutes. However, these are not normal times. You have invested, collectively, several thousand hours in my education. As I report back to you today, that investment is deserving of greater depth and more thought than would be permitted in 25 minutes.
Preparing the Future
“Preparing the Future” I have chosen that title for several reasons. One is obvious: along with universities the world over and across a tradition that spans many centuries, that has been our calling. And our responsibility.
We are in a period of transition in American higher education. You - and I heard this loudly and clearly - are committed to leading that transition rather than being pushed along by it.
We are also preparing the future of Western Washington University. That will be my primary theme. And, I think it particularly important that we stay focused on that topic as we go through a period of budget retrenchment.
We must focus on where we want to be for any number of reasons. In so doing, we will gain insights into how the university and its programs should – and should not – be altered in response to immediate budget considerations. We will position our university to make significant leaps forward if, as the budget situation most certainly improves, we have the vision, the strategies, the commitments, the understandings, and the relationships in place to take Western where we want it to be. Most importantly, though, it is a focus that can help keep us together. And, if we fail in staying together, whatever else we might do is worth little.
For me, leading is always best done by listening. It began this summer with introductory meetings and a widely circulated “stakeholders’ survey.” At opening convocation, I reported preliminary findings. In my remarks (in September), I promised to expand, sharpen, and correct these first impressions through a process of meeting with all of you. And then report back. This afternoon, I make that report.
My remarks today are a “next stage” in a cycle of listening, learning, feeding back, and then listening and learning again. A cycle that will continue so long as I have the privilege of serving you.
As expected, the process of listening took all of Fall Quarter with January thrown in. I believe there were opportunities for 2,200 of us – faculty and staff and student leaders - to meet together in about 90 listening sessions. In addition, there were opportunities to listen and learn from meetings with student groups, neighborhood associations, community organizations, university boards, electronic forums, newspaper editorial boards and even one call-in radio show. Further, my calendar shows about 200 smaller, usually one-on-one meetings with alumni leaders, donors, elected officials, leaders of the communities of color that enrich our state, colleague presidents, union leadership, and leaders in various sectors at the state level.
I learned so much and thank you for taking the time to educate me. What was my greatest lesson? I learned, face-to-face with each of you, just how excellent this university is.
Abstractly, I knew of Western’s excellence; I got to see – and know – the people who define that excellence, who are that excellence. Personally, it was very energizing. And, I recommend it if you are feeling down or discouraged: get out and rub elbows with people on our campus whom you do not currently know.
At most listening sessions, we began with an ice breaker in which people were asked to share a “tidbit,” about themselves that nobody else in the room likely knew. These exchanges demonstrated the ease with which faculty and staff from widely disparate parts of the university could come together and laugh and connect with each other. We heard, perhaps, 2,000 “tidbits.” My very favorite, among many? The colleague who simply said, and I quote: “I have spent time in a jail …. For something I did not necessarily do.”
We must keep our sense of humor going. So, I start my report back to you with a major announcement. The most frequently mentioned topic, spanning campus and community and faculty, staff and students alike, is parking. We believe we have a solution to aspects of the problem: Red Square will be made into a centrally located parking lot, thereby also eliminating another genuine concern: pedestrian/bicycle/skateboard issues in the Square during class changes.
At most listening sessions, a colleague kept track of the subjects raised, and those were placed on the web, unedited and unpolished. In preparing for my remarks today, I reread every page of those department-by-department comments and made my own summary notes on themes common to more than one listening session.
My summary of common themes ended up with exactly 100. Time does not permit me to cover the full richness of even those subjects in common let alone the many important particulars relevant in a specific departmental context. Should you be interested, though, in that level of detail, I have put my notes, my personal summary of the 100 shared listening session themes, out on the web. Let me know what I missed for I know well more eyes allow clearer vision. The “raw data” (the notes from each listening session) are on the web along with a community forum where I now encourage you to comment on what I got right. And, what I overlooked or misunderstood.
My remarks today do not target the immediate months ahead and our budget. The processes and criteria for addressing our budget have been established and will proceed openly and with your engagement. Later this afternoon, I will be giving a presentation on the budget to our Trustees; and, to you should you choose to listen, we will audio-cast that report.
Today, we will look further out. And, it will be your vision, your strategies, and your concerns that I have the privilege to now report.
Preparing Tomorrow Today
Ours is the premier public comprehensive university in the Pacific Northwest. Your vision is to be the best in the country. And, this is the question I asked of myself as I reviewed the notes from the listening sessions: of all the common themes, which provide opportunities for us to be working together, even in difficult times, preparing to reach that vision? What can we be doing right now, that we must be doing so that, as the economy turns around, we are in a position to take a dramatic leap forward? Things that don’t necessarily take dollars. And that, even if they do take dollars, are of such critical importance that we must focus on them now.
What are we? What are we to be?
At the top of the list is simply this: when we say we will become the best, we cannot begin to figure how until we have agreed on “the best of what?” There are other ways to ask the same question. Best of class? OK, what is the class? What are the universities we are competing with? How will we know when we get there, how do we measure our progress?
It is clear what we are not. We are not a “private college education at a public university price.” We are far better. Outstanding and expensive liberal arts colleges deliver a very special brand of education suited to certain students. We, though, have a richness of curricular choices, a quality of faculty across all programs, cutting-edge equipment, and a depth of academic and student support services that would be the envy of any of those private, liberal arts colleges.
We are not a regional college, at least not of the type with which I am familiar. Regional colleges do not have 10,000 applications for a couple of thousand openings, those applications coming from across the state. Regional colleges do not have the national and international reputations for program, research, and scholarly excellence that so liberally infuse our campus.
While a good deal of high-level research and creative work is done here at Western, we are not a doctoral-research university. In my meetings with people they acknowledge that we are not and won't be a doctoral-research university, but they express concern that there isn't an appreciation for what the hard-working faculty and students do in this area.
We are not a “public private,” a research comprehensive, or a regional. But, looked at differently, we are the best of all three. It is the special, “hands on,” deeply caring commitments of faculty and students working with a liberal arts-centric approach that is the cornerstone of what we call engaged excellence and which is the hallmark of private, exclusive liberal arts colleges. While not a regional university, we care deeply about the region we call home, seek in many ways to meet its needs, and to be exemplary stewards of place. And, while not a doctoral research university, our engaged excellence rests firmly upon providing our students with personal learning opportunities provided by “Big U” faculty that, ironically, these students would not get, at least not as undergraduates, at a “Big U.”
We are the best of all three.
How will “best” be measured? Going into our listening sessions, I had no clue. I knew it was not magazine rankings. But, what would it be? This idea you shared with me: we will know we are best when people from around the country come to us to see how to do it, whatever “it” is. Preparing English majors, taking care of our region, living “sustainably,” enjoying the benefits of a more diverse faculty, staff, and student body, serving the many needs of students that arise outside our classrooms, cleaning our buildings using model “green” practices, working together with our unions in ways that are the envy of the rest of higher education, ….
We have a period of time to figure this out. And, it does not take a budget initiative to do it. It does take our best talent. It requires a lot of real, genuine, and challenging dialogue. Most importantly, it takes a continuing belief in the relevance of our vision to be the best in the nation.
Figuring out what we are is the first step in another obvious need you identified: to do a better job of marketing in a myriad of ways. Marketing sounds suspicious to many: trying to sell something we are not. Effective marketing takes the opposite approach: critically understanding, first, just what it is that we are and are especially good at.
This has a critical connection to a pressing issue: having the resource base to continue to do what we do so well. We have to figure out how to effectively communicate what we are – the best of all three, private liberal arts, research comprehensive, regional – because the resulting education, while of high value, also costs more. We cannot sustain it let alone reach nationally recognized prominence at the level of funding of a regional university. Again, to get to where we eventually want to be, it is critical that we use the current period of retrenchment to figure out our marketing strategies
We already do a lot of marketing. Right now, the issue of marketing does not require that we find more money. No, it means that we create a clear marketing strategy, one that integrates all the marketing that we currently do. Under the leadership of Vice President Swan and involving all interested components of the university, this integrated marketing initiative is now underway.
Closely related to being best is the need to take risks. In a number of sessions, I heard of a culture on campus that was averse to taking risks. I also learned of a number of real institutional barriers to trying new approaches.
To me, it is self-evident: we cannot be the university others wish to emulate if we are unwilling to follow paths others have not yet tried.
There is another reason to encourage risk taking. Across the country and as state support shrinks across decades past and decades coming, universities and their faculties and staffs are striving to become even more entrepreneurial.
Our current significant success becomes a liability in this context. Who wants to change a winning game? But, we cannot attain or sustain a position of leadership by simply doing more of what has worked to this point. Institutionalizing a capacity to change is the only way I know for organizations to attain stability in a dynamic environment.
There are any number of opportunities we have available to untie our hands, and they do not take further resources. Indeed, it is precisely in tough budget times when we must carefully scrutinize practices and policies that stand in the way of organizational change. For example, does it make any sense as we seek to diversify our revenues, to actively discourage faculty from pursuing research and contract support that would require their buying out their time? Yet, several departments reported that being the situation. It is but one example of a responsibility we all share: to question – and, as appropriate, change – current practices.
There are other ways to encourage risk taking. I heard, on a number of occasions, of ideas colleagues had – on the academic side, yes, but also across the university – that required a front-end investment. For example, imagine a “program innovation fund” upon which colleagues could draw to try programmatic ventures.