Opening Convocation

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

September 16, 2009

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Part 2

Essential partnerships are being formed. One example:  the College of Sciences and Technology, the Port of Bellingham, Bellingham Technical College, and private industry have partnered at the Waterfront Development Zone to establish the Technology Development Center.  There, shared expertise is engaged in cutting edge learning opportunities for our students and economic development projects of value to the region and state. 

As regards continuing innovation and being willing to take some risks, there are so many examples but here are two: Western’s new Karen W. Morse Institute for leadership, under the inaugural leadership of Dr. Joseph Garcia is seeking to advance the research and study of leadership as well as to collaborate with the portfolio of opportunities within Student Affairs and… to further broaden, enrich and engage the education of our students, making leadership a hallmark of the Western experience. Woodring’s Community Action Grant Program provides  “seed monies” to support faculty in their pursuit of innovative programmatic ventures with partners in the community and with other education agencies. 

In the area of educational outreach, Woodring continues to add programs and students, this fall serving 1,139 students in undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs on site in Bremerton, Everett, and Seattle; Huxley College of the Environment has taken a major step in now offering two bachelor’s degrees in Everett; the College of Business and Economics, again in a major step for that college, will be offering an executive MBA program in Everett as well.

In transparent decision making and budgeting, I will simply repeat what I believe governance leadership volunteered in their reports at a recent meeting of our Trustees: in the last year, the transparency of Western’s budgeting and decision making moved from the significantly problematic to setting a mark that the other Washington public higher education institutions need to strive to reach.

Last year, you demanded that Diversity be a top priority.  I am particularly encouraged by the further activation of the Minority Employees Council and their willingness to provide us with candid and direct counsel; You have aggressively embraced Compass 2 Campus, a program for major expansion of the pipeline to those in the schools where families are least likely to have gone to college; and Dr. Ojikutu and Dr. Guenter-Schlesinger have researched best practices concerning faculty and staff diversity retention and recruitment practices with a report under consideration by a number of groups; and, through a difficult budget year, a recurring budget line was established to support such initiatives.   As helpful as the MEC and Kunle and Sue have been in all of this, they would be the first to point out that progress here is a responsibility which must be shared by all of us. 

Just a brief sampling.  Finally, in looking back, we must note the budget cuts we were required to make, cuts several times larger than this university had seen.  Our ability to support everything from office custodial services to counseling of distressed students has been affected.  For many of the cuts, we are taking substantial risks without really knowing what the full consequences are likely to be.  For example, after reducing class sections by 10% to 15% while maintaining seat capacity, significant risks ensue concerning the quality of learning, the richness of the curriculum, and effects upon our students’ time to degree.  Several important initiatives badly needed by the state simply had to be shelved.  And, we must acknowledge that, in not filling 164 positions, while there are consequences for our ability to serve, there were also serious consequences for former colleagues as well as for ourselves and our shared sense of community.


Looking Ahead

I am so proud of this university.  We did more than simply come through some tough times.  We came through together.  Concern and caring for each other was so evident and so important. 

Openness and communication were also key.  With those values in mind, I now turn to looking ahead.

While we came through the year with core commitments intact, we did see state support for our operating budget drop from 60% to 43%.  I don’t mean over decades, I mean over night.

Was this an aberration?  Can we see brighter years immediately ahead?  We cannot.  I will spare you the details – they are in a white paper now on the web – but the state’s fiscal prospects, over the next four years, gets only more gloomy.

We have passed a watershed.  What does it mean for the public to become a minority stakeholder in their premier public comprehensive university?  What does that mean for us and our mission?  What does that mean for Washington and our state’s future?

None of us alone have answers to these questions.  So, this period in the evolution – perhaps transformation – of Western requires all our full intellectual engagement in critically yet constructively and collegially challenging each other’s very best thinking.  Do challenge mine: fully, critically, …  collegially.

This morning, I will spare you my thinking on the context in which we must determine Western’s future: the transformations under way within society, and within American higher education and, as important, the complex political context for higher education here in Washington.  That context and a full analysis can be found among the several white papers now on the web and designed to engage and stimulate your best thinking.  This morning, I will move immediately to the strategies that the summer-long pondering led me to.    

Last year, I did a lot of listening.  This year, I certainly will continue to listen but will do more serious questioning: questions that, if I am really doing my job for you, will make you, me, others feel uncomfortable. 

Why?  Just as we do with our students in classrooms, so too with ourselves and our university, we must ask questions that take us outside the realm of the known and familiar.  Today’s known and familiar is tomorrow’s irrelevance; fail to ask the discomforting questions and we risk becoming irrelevant ourselves.   

There will be much ambiguity in what I sketch.  And, that, too, is essential. You – we – must together find answers meaningful to our shared calling.


Looking to the year ahead, almost all our efforts will be focused upon continuing all that we, that you, do so superbly: creating and supporting high quality learning, so effectively enabling the success of our students in and outside the classroom, and applying your scholarship, your creativity, your passion to the ongoing challenges of our community, our state, our world. 

There are a variety of more specific initiatives that immediately come to mind:

  • Regularizing an open, transparent, and strategic approach to budgetary decision making, including capital planning and consequent budgeting.
  • Building the information systems that allow decision-making to be not only transparent but well-informed and effective.  Included will be implementation of Banner Budget and, in so doing, shifting to a much more informative, “activity based” approach.
  • Envisioning our shared aspirations and plans for graduate programs on (and off) our campus.
  • Initiating a comprehensive fund-raising campaign.
  • Continuing momentum at the Waterfront.
  • Settling upon the highest priority uses for the funds that have been budgeted, year 2, to support faculty and staff diversity recruitment and retention initiatives.
  • Defining and advancing our commitment to establish “leadership” as a hallmark of a Western degree, whatever the major.
  • Identifying how we are going to fulfill your aspirations for stronger programs in international education.
  • And understanding our approaches to meeting broader educational needs off our campus and where people are in their lives, in their careers, in our state.

I could go on with the list.  But, I am not going to talk about any of that.  As I turn to thinking about the years ahead and a coming biennium that, fiscally, will be as challenging as the one we just entered, I focus on the question of strengthening our political base. There, I believe, we must find meaningful answers to three questions:

  1. How can we better make the case for public higher education in Washington?
  2. How can we make that case itself even better?
  3. With the state now a minority shareholder in our operating budget, we are no longer a “public university” in the accustomed sense so, just what are we?

The remainder of my remarks seek to stimulate our thinking and our further discussion on  these three questions.

Better Making the Case

We have a strong case to make.  Why were we were cut so heavily?  Is it just the fiscal predicament that the state faced?  I wish the answer were that simple.  It is not. 

Certainly, we have strong supporters.  But, even among those who care about us in the legislature, they tell us that public four-year and graduate higher education is not seen as relevant to the lives of the average person who elects them.

We know and can document that higher education is the driving force behind the economic, social, and cultural vitality of our state.  Private and public sector leaders in our state really do get this and are strong allies.  The broader public does not as clearly see the connection.  Ironically, – and dangerously so in this highly populist state – they too often end up seeing us as elitist, without relevance to their lives.    

And, please understand something we in universities, with our dedication to seeking truth, do find it hard to accept:  facts do not drive political decisions, politics does.  And, in politics, perceptions, however incomplete or superficial, matter much more than, say, analyses supported by graphs, charts, and statistics.

Here is a sampling of what we will be doing to make the case politically more effective:

  • First, we need to build upon the mechanisms we have in place to coordinate our many efforts to communicate with Olympia.  During the legislative session, leadership of the governance groups, the unions – all involved with educating Olympia – met weekly in my office to share what we were hearing and to integrate efforts.  At key points, families of students, alumni, trustees, faculty and staff joined the efforts.  Believe it or not, we were due to get significantly worse cuts than we ended up with.  Our coordinated efforts contributed significantly to our avoiding total disaster. 
  • The presidents of the six universities are strongly committed to and have meaningfully begun to assure common and coordinated efforts on messaging and mobilizing.
  • The Trustees and Regents of the six public higher education institutions are collectively organizing to coordinate and multiply their impacts.   Our own Trustees have already begun: at their August meeting they engaged legislators in a productive and public discussion of how to move more effectively forward.
  • And, I am very pleased to announce that Bill Lyne has accepted my request to direct his considerable talents and understandings to this high priority.  He has accepted a part-time, two-year appointment as Faculty Associate to the President and Provost and, in that role, will be applying his energy and insights to the task of better making our case. 
  • We have the data and are now using it ceaselessly to set right those incorrect stereotypes that are floating out there: Washington leads all the other 50 states in highest baccalaureate degree productivity and in the lowest cost per degree (while maintaining a reputation for high quality). 
  • We will be initiating a “100 Conversations” strategy to engage people across the state in clarifying the future of their public universities.
  • We will be working regionally to coordinate our efforts with the other post-secondary institutions from Whatcom County to North Seattle.

Just a few steps now under way.  You, I know, will also have great ideas as we strive to do a better job of making our case.  Do know, though, that this will continue to be our top priority: relentlessly making the strong case for Western.


Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Page Updated 11.27.2013