Preparing the Future
February 12, 2009
One of the most common topics I heard among academic departments was the question of what the role of graduate programs should be. Comparing our enrollment profiles to peers, there is no question that we have de-emphasized graduate programs. A more positive way to say the same is to note that undergraduate education has been emphasized and that clear, strategic focus is what has helped us to become the premier university that we are.
I heard strong agreement on one principle: what we do in the area of graduate programs must not be achieved by reducing the quality of our undergraduate programs. And, indeed, I repeatedly heard that the graduate programs we currently have are making essential and multiple contributions to the quality of the undergraduate experience, and that there are opportunities to realize even further synergies.
Answering this question – what should the role of graduate programs at Western now become? – is precisely the sort of collective activity that we must engage in as we prepare to become “best.” It does not require any budget allocation. And, the fact that graduate programs at Western are currently underdeveloped is a potential asset. We can be designing for the future – stepping ahead of the rest of our “class” as we innovate program by program – without the inertia that would burden competitors that have full-blown programs. Provost and Vice President Murphy has directed Dean of the Graduate School Ghali to lead an examination of the role of graduate programs at Western.
I heard widespread interest in expanding our attention to international programs. I learned of the excellence and the variety in that which we already do. Many see opportunities to do much more and spoke of the significant value in so doing.
Discussions covered the traditional subjects of study abroad and attracting more international students to our campus. Conversation also extended to imaginative approaches for curricular enrichment, international internships, engagement of international alumni, and partnerships with other institutions, including our community college neighbors.
This is an area that, necessarily, has not been fully developed as we focused upon reaching eminence through engaged excellence. It is now time, though, to ask how we can hope to move from regionally best to nationally esteemed without fully developing and reaping the benefits of vibrant international programs.
This again, requires careful, thoughtful, strategic, collaborative consideration. What is most important to do first? What can we experimentally do that others have not yet thought to do? This is precisely the kind of creative activity that we can pursue even as budgets tighten and that we must do if we are to effectively move ahead as the economic outlook improves.
Extending Degree Programs
In a number of listening sessions, I heard of successful efforts to serve the needs of people off our campus and where they are in their lives, in their careers, and in Western Washington. Our combined efforts in this area are less fully developed than one might expect at a university of our size and with our complexity. This again follows, so you told me, from our successful strategy to achieve premier status. And, I did hear, once or twice, from those who worried that further ventures into extended degrees risked diluting our “brand.”
Recognizing that important consideration, it is paramount that any programs we offer at a distance are of demonstrably high quality. That must remain the competitive edge in all we do. We also must make sure that any such efforts add to rather than draw upon our resource base. And, even as the listening sessions were going on, departments and colleges were expanding efforts to serve needs off campus. Such explorations can go forward during times of budget retrenchment because there is the potential to fully recover costs. Indeed, one college is looking at opportunities here as a way of meeting critical state needs yet also reducing the impact of budget reductions.
Such efforts are best explored program by program. But, should this be – and the question is entirely open in my mind – an avenue by which we also seek to establish ourselves as “best of class,” then there would need to be a significant shift in our understanding of our mission. And, not just among academic departments. From Financial Aid to Admissions to the Library, across all student and academic support services, there would need to be acceptance and accommodation to the fact that there are only Western students, wherever they may be located.
There are strategic reasons to pay attention to needs not being well served in our area. Politically, we establish valued allies, people whose support is necessary if we are not to see our state water down the higher education soup by adding campuses that have tenuous educational justification. The current recession has such efforts on hold. Our contribution to meeting the actual, demonstrable needs out there may help forestall shortsighted commitments at the state level when things turn around.
Research and Creative Activity
On several occasions, I heard faculty express concerns about possibly downplaying the importance of scholarship. I think it must have been the observation that we will not be a Carnegie I doctoral research comprehensive that generated the concerns.
To say we will not be a Carnegie I does not mean that we do not do Carnegie I scholarship. We do. I saw it everywhere I visited on campus. I have spent most of my career at a doctoral comprehensive and so know of what I speak. Our challenge, and it is part of the marketing initiative, is to make clear that we must sustain Carnegie I caliber faculty who are here, in part, because of the value they attach to engaging students in the excellence of their professional commitments. Further, and also a marketing challenge, is to help the state understand that its future (economic, social, culture) does not derive solely from the research activities taking place 90 miles to the south of us. The state’s investment in Western comes back many times over and not just through graduates; we are doing research and scholarly activities both here on campus and at special facilities such as Shannon Point Marine Center that are having positive impacts statewide, and across the nation and world as well.
So, there is something for us to work on right now. But, there is more. I repeatedly heard of disincentives to do funded research. Several seem to flow from university, college, or departmental practices. Others stem from the culture of a particular unit: e.g., does a major grant proposal count at all or count as much as a publication in a refereed journal? Departmental culture is in the hands of colleagues but the policies can be addressed top down.
Most importantly, during times of budget reductions, it is all the more important to emphasize and enable extramurally supported research and creative activity.
One of the most frequently heard observations, wherever I went, were expressions of appreciation for the open and regular communications on our budget challenges. More generally, there were comments about the need to assure open and transparent decision making as well as views that we are making progress toward that objective.
We did discuss the progress we have yet to make. For example, in several departments and even though we have promised otherwise, people reported not having any idea where the college was in formulating the “bottom up” SWOT analyses and principles that would then guide open consideration of decision making. My reply was fairly simple: processes are easily changed but culture also has to change. That cannot be done top down. It is a responsibility we all share, and those not currently seeing the progress we might like need to help assure that it happens.
I heard something else that might seem to contradict the emphasis on transparency. People want our university to actually reach decisions. I certainly do agree that decisions must be made. I suspect an important component in reconciling these concerns is to make clear to all, after a decision is made, how it follows from the principles that were transparently developed to guide decision making.
We will never get it exactly right. But, what we will do, after each cycle, is to meet with appropriate governance groups and other bodies to do a post mortem in order to identify improvements we can put in place for the next time. This, again, is an area where we can make progress, where we must continue to make progress, even in hard budgetary times.
The best budget processes in the world do not generate another nickel to support the many ideas and real needs out there. And, I heard of many, many needs. About the best I could promise was an open process where we could see the alternatives, the choices made, and whether or not those difficult choices reflected departmental, college, and university priorities, needs, and chosen strategic directions.
Across the university, people said they are feeling stretched very thinly. People ARE stretched. Wherever we look. I believe we must guard against thinking that, if only some other part of the university were not so favored, the problem could be solved. That is, in my view, the same sort of “magical thinking” that uninformed citizens or elected officials sometimes engage in by saying that we could solve the higher ed budget problem by eliminating administrative waste and fat, by getting underworked faculty to work fulltime, and by cutting the president’s salary. Here, it would be my hope, that opening up our budgeting process will help us avoid such dysfunctional and damaging thinking.
At a number of sessions, people asked – sometimes with a hint of anger – why we are building buildings at the same time we are cutting budgets. All questions are always appreciated and it gave me an opportunity to explain the distinctively different budgeting processes. Capital budgets are for buildings and such. We can take the dollars, or not. We cannot take the dollars and use them for operating expenses. Why? The capital budget is really not actual, current dollars that the state has annually collected from taxpayers and that, therefore, could be used to cover annual operating needs; it is an obligation placed on people over the next 20 years or so to come up with the dollars.
I also heard of a number of departments, academic and not, with documented and significant increases in students being served with no concomitant increase in the resources available. Ratios, formulas, and data do not make decisions, of course. We must make resource reallocations with our brains, values, and understandings firmly engaged. Still, seeking closer alignment of resources and demands is something we can work toward whatever the budget situation.
Yes, data do not make decisions, people do. But, data and analysis of the data can help us make better decisions. If we lack such analyses, we are running blind. If the data we have is not carefully defined and collected, reliance on such information can actually lead to worse decisions.
Over and over in the listening sessions, I heard of frustrations in getting data needed by departments and programs to enable them in doing a better job. I saw two examples where the data, had it been relied upon, would have led to incorrect conclusions and bad decisions because the data was collected and categorized in ways not suited to our decision-making needs.
Here we need to make major changes. I expect this will require a redeployment of the resources we currently allocate, across the university, to Institutional Research. First, we need to get the numbers right. Then, we need to make sure the analyses we routinely do are directed not by “what we have always done” but, rather, by what we now need to know as decisions are made, and to incorporate outcome-based planning and analysis where appropriate. That does mean, by the way, that those with IR talents are an integral part of the budgetary and other decision-making processes.
There is progress being made. With leadership from our Trustees and Provost Murphy, an amazingly versatile set of “dash board indicators” has been developed. You are also starting to discuss how we will participate in the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA). This is a joint initiative of both AASCU (American Association of State Colleges and Universities) and NASULGC (National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges) and, frankly, we are well behind many other universities here. It would be my hope that VSA can effectively support our collective capacity to make better decisions about that which we care most: the quality of our programs, recognizing that the data will never measure all we care about and that we must keep our brains in gear. Even if that is not the case, we will not get to “best of class” if we stay at the back of this parade; VSA was developed by our associations, in part, to ward off mandatory systems of accountability emanating from Washington, D.C. with the D’s as interested as the R’s; and, of course, in any system that allows people to compare universities, we will shine, establishing another way to break out of the “regional university” pack.