Preparing the Future
February 12, 2009
Western must become an institution that offers access and opportunity to those who have been systematically excluded from the resources and rewards of our economy. We will never help address this basic tenet of justice, we will never reach national prominence – indeed we will not retain our status in the Pacific Northwest – if, in the years ahead, we remain as white as we currently are. We have made some progress but, in terms of the diversity of our faculty, staff, and student body, we are basically and squarely in the middle of the pack. I know, for I heard it many times: you expect far better of Western.
In speaking with me, you have focused on diversifying the composition of our faculty and staff. That is the right thing to do, of course. Period. But, it is also an important means, through both recruitment and retention, of diversifying our student body.
It will take money and that is one of those commitments we are going to have to continue to make and increasingly make even in these times of budgetary challenge. Part of it has to do with supply and demand. As I understood those principles from my freshman econ course and as I see universities around the country competing for a too small pool of faculty and staff of color, we are going to have to continue even more to pay a premium for faculty and staff of color.
I also think we should formulate a faculty/staff diversity initiative. There are many models out there for us to borrow from and any such initiative for Western would benefit from thorough consideration by governance and other bodies. This is not the place to go into details but recognize that it must affect both recruitment and retention, providing one-time sources of funding for a variety of steps.
We have certain diversity funds already in budgets. I intend, in the bleak budget ahead, to propose but additional funding for a faculty/staff diversity initiative. In our open and transparent processes, it may not survive. But, in so doing, it is an expression of the importance we, as a university, must attach to this effort, critical to preparing the future Western Washington University.
The State of Washington intends to increase the number of baccalaureate graduates. The sad truth is that the students prepared to succeed in universities are just not out there in the numbers the state expects. And needs. As high school graduation numbers have leveled off, it is the populations of color that are growing. And, as you brought to my attention there lies Washington’s opportunity. And, Western Washington University’s opportunity. And, when the state cannot immediately expand capacity, it makes sense to focus on a currently too narrow pipeline.
We do much in this area now. There is a need, first, to assure our efforts are aligned with potential synergies already realized. Then, there is an opportunity to do more. This is another opportunity for us. And, it is picking up steam: there is a bill being considered in Olympia that would make Western the state’s pilot for such efforts.
I clearly heard that our commitment to sustainability is strong and, most certainly, will be one of the cornerstones of our strategy to become the best. This is nothing new for us. However, looking across the country today, I would be hard pressed to name a university that did not assert a commitment similar to ours. Our history, our established strengths, and the values that infuse our campus do give us a significant leg up. Our challenge will be to approach the subject genuinely and innovatively, with ideas others will come to us to copy.
How do we find those ideas? The sustainability group, organized bottom-up as all such effective groups must, will be central to that effort. And, it is the sort of thinking and strategizing that we must now be doing so that, as the economy turns around, we know what it is we most need to do and do first.
I want to use the topic of sustainability to comment on another dramatic lesson I learned throughout the listening sessions. We are a campus of caring, committed colleagues actively engaged in the challenges of our wider world. Remember those tidbits I asked people to share? So often, they involved some personal commitment: serving at a Hospice facility, volunteering in a clinic, adopting two children from Africa, …
This pervades our faculty, our staff, and most certainly our students. And, I also saw it to an unusual degree in my listening sessions with members of the Bellingham community. If you have spent much of your life here, it may require a newcomer like me to point out how extraordinary this is. I don’t know quite where to go here, but I raise it because you just may. It does seem to be a key advantage to build upon as we decide what, for our purposes, constitutes the best university of our type.
I had many questions about where we are on the Waterfront. I first explained that we are currently juggling two roles. One is to facilitate our community and its able leaders as they come together to lead a development that future generations can look on with pride.
The other, of course, involves our own interest in a presence on the Waterfront. Here I offered several thoughts, developed by listening to you. First, I heard that our planning seemed to follow from the need to expand baccalaureate capacity and also heard from you that enrollment projections for the programs that would locate on the Waterfront were not realistic.
I understand the need to emphasize growth: that’s what the state pays for. But, I got to thinking. Perhaps we have the cart before the horse. First, we should ask, what is it we could uniquely do at the Waterfront alone and that would contribute to our basic vision: premier university in the nation through engaged excellence? Answer that question first and enrollment implications may or may not follow.
It is another important question, precisely the kind we can and must address as we work through the current budget situation and prepare for better times.
I also heard of very genuine and real concerns. One, that we continue to ask the responsible entities to fully address seismic standards. We will. And, that we not dilute support for current programs by shifting resources toward a development on the Waterfront. We won’t.
In several listening sessions, colleagues reported concerns about having academic programs located in two different sites. Travel between the two sites was one concern. Another concern addressed the potential to further isolate students who need broader exposure to the diverse academic programs that enrich our campus. To these and related concerns, my reaction is probably predictable given my emphasis on taking risks and innovating. Perhaps these are show stoppers but it is also possible that there are solutions we, as creative people, can come up with once we more specifically understand what we want to do on the Waterfront.
I also heard excitement about being on the Waterfront. The most common denominator was to have a better and more effective location to interface with the community – be it in educational outreach, partnerships with other entities including NOAA, research and other activities in support of economic development, and supporting the needs of the community in the critical area of the fine and performing arts. Basically, getting off our hill and being even more effectively stewards of place.
Again, even though we are entering a budgetary hiatus, this is an area where we can further plan and develop the strategies we will need to have in place for the future. And, we must also continue to make progress on the project. We are. Engaging our students in the process, we are moving forward with a character study to more precisely conceptualize how, physically, our presence on the Waterfront should look and feel. Here we use funds specifically appropriated for such purposes during the last legislative session. Groups on campus are continuing to refine plans for our presence there. We will also be seeking legislative help in land acquisition.
These are difficult times for raising money. Even the funds we have previously raised are, to use the phrase common to the trade, “under water.” Endowments are not producing the revenues that, historically, we have come to count upon. For example, we support about $900,000 of scholarships through income on our endowments. We are projecting that will drop to $150,000 this year.
Nevertheless, this is precisely the time for us to plan a major capital campaign, and I have asked for that planning to begin under Vice President Bower’s leadership. We need to be prepared to go forward in 12 to 18 months – it will take that long to plan.
That may well involve you, too, as we do need to do a lot of work internally to understand our needs and opportunities, realizing that a capital campaign only adds “margins of excellence” and does nothing for filling holes. I trust you also see the critical connection to other tasks I have mentioned: defining what class it is that we intend to be the best in and marketing, to mention just two.
I began with what I thought was the most important and pressing need for us to stay effectively engaged in preparing bright futures. I will end with the subject that must drive all the above considerations.
Attention to academic quality is key to our future, certainly. It must also determine the difficult budgetary decisions we will all soon be engaged in. And, we must consider difficult choices. For example, when I present the budget situation to our Trustees this afternoon, one of the considerations I will put on the table is the possibility that, to protect quality, we may have to go through a period of being a smaller university, downsizing over the next several years. There would be serious consequences for us. And for the state we exist to serve.
I trust we won’t have to go there. But, why even consider such a disagreeable course? Our edge is the quality of our academic programs. We must never lose sight of that driving force. I saw its origins in the faculty, staff, and students with whom I was able to meet. I saw recognition of its value in the many groups outside the university that I met with around our state.
I have laid out fifteen major initiatives we could be pursuing today. Indeed, I have said we should be pursuing them if we are serious about being best. And, these are just a distillation of the many ideas you shared with me. The list could be longer. Indeed, I invite you to make it longer. As these remarks go up on the web today, there will be a community forum for you to add to the list.
What about priorities? While not requiring new dollars, these each require time and talent. And, we are each thinly stretched. Yes, we each, individually, need to set priorities. But, together as a university, do we need to do so in pursuing further consideration of these fifteen items?
Maybe, maybe not. One of the useful features of the subjects I have raised is that they do not each require the attention of us all. We are 2,200 strong. I saw that collective strength face-to-face through the listening sessions. What a reservoir of talent. And, at this stage, that is what it is about: applying our best ideas to challenging questions.
Pick just one of the many areas where we need to engage our own excellence in order to prepare for tomorrow, become its champion, force me, force our university, force yourself to find the strategies we need to have in place to move Western to become the best in the country.
I tell myself that the period ahead will test my abilities as a leader like they have never before been tested. Everyone in this room is also a leader. And, you will find your leadership tested as never before. I now know you and so know you are up to the test. Through your leadership – and most assuredly not through mine alone – Western will be made stronger.
What really, is going to get us to the vision? Western will be the best if we are each the best – in our commitment to the vision, in our belief in our own excellence, in our willingness to innovate and experiment. And, most importantly, in our commitments to each other.
Thank you for listening. And, let me know what you think:Email your comments to me; join the open dialogue at the President's corner of Viking Village take advantage of further opportunities to meet, to talk, to listen.