Opening Convocation

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

September 16, 2009

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Part 3

Making the Case Itself Better....

We cannot stop there, though.  We have been trying to make the case for decades.  We also need to think about how to make the case itself better, stronger.  We do have to ask if our critics might not have a point.

The really disturbing issue is this:  as legislators reported and as surveys confirm, the broad public does see us, generally, with warm, fuzzy positives.  But, they do not see how what we do affects their lives.  Compare a cut to higher education with a cut to a public assistance program or to K-12.  There were plenty of each of these this biennium.  Private sector leaders I regularly talk with do understand that higher education investments are the only way the state, longer term, will be able to have the capacity to support its admirable commitments to social justice and K-12 education. 

Average voters see the effects of cuts to K-12 or to public assistance programs in their homes and neighborhoods every day. They see no hurt to them, though, if higher education, particularly 4-year higher education, is cut. Quality diminishes we know, tuition goes up, if we are forced to shrink, then fewer students may be able to attend.  So what?  They see no consequences for their jobs, the vitality of their communities, the futures of their children.

There is so much we are already doing to directly affect the lives of Washingtonians – all Washingtonians. We must do an ever better job of explaining these.  But, we will also look for ways to do more.  Some important steps are under way:

  • It is the community and technical colleges that are seen by the broader public as more relevant to their lives.  We will be formalizing and strengthening our partnerships with two-year colleges.   I expect that our current efforts will be expanded by orders of magnitude in the years immediately ahead.
  • We do so much to strengthen our community culturally and socially as well as economically.  I could name 25 such projects (perhaps 50 if I stretched) you have under way.  I do name them at those service club speeches I regularly make.  But, we should look for ways to do more. That is one reason why our commitments at the Waterfront must continue to visibly and meaningfully advance.  Still, like most other universities, our efforts to be “stewards of place” have been somewhat peripheral, have been more a serendipitous result of our core commitments to learning, scholarship, and engaged excellence.  Our contributions to community and economic development will be moving, organizationally and culturally from the peripheral to an integral and higher-level part of how we will strive to be more relevant and more visibly relevant to brighter futures for all who are Washington.
  • Also very visibly, we will deliver on our designation by the state as the pilot program for a new approach to building the pipeline to under-served populations. Truth is, the students this state desperately needs in order to expand baccalaureate education are simply not out there in the numbers required with requisite preparation and motivation.  The populations that are growing come from families where parents are unlikely to have gone to college.  Our Compass 2 Campus program has already attracted the direct involvement of many community members, over 100 faculty and staff, 450 Western students, and 10 school districts.  This is one of those fortuitous coincidences where the right thing to do also happens to be, when it comes to making the case stronger, also the institutionally self-interested thing to do.  I can think of no initiative more likely to make the case for our direct relevance to those families who, today, just don’t see a connection between our continuing strength and their futures.    

Just a taste of the ways to use actions, not just arguments, in response to the challenge of being the broader public’s university.  I strongly encourage you to help grow that list in the years ahead.

The Publicly Purposed University

Can we turn around the political situation?  We will all work relentlessly to do so.

However, I think we would be foolish to bet the future of our university on an expectation that taxpayer support levels of the past will be seen again any time soon.

As public support has dropped below 50%, around the country, university presidents are fond of pointing out that their institutions have shifted from being “public” to being “publicly-assisted.”

That phrase “publicly assisted” has long made me uneasy. We are defined not by where the money comes from but by where we put our efforts: our mission.  We are a proudly public institution because of values we hold and a mission to which we are dedicated.  And, I don’t think that changes with shifts in where the dollars come from.

Drawing from an excellent study of higher education financing done by Lyall and Sell, we are transforming, like it or not, to become not “publicly assisted,” but, rather, “publicly purposed.”* 

It is the purposes we pursue that define us as public.

What does it mean to become a “publicly purposed” university?  The answer is unclear. But, the very ambiguity is, itself, an advantage. We have the opportunity to define it for ourselves.  Or, as is now beginning, have it increasingly defined for us. 

My crystal ball is as cloudy as is everybody else’s.  But, as I look ahead, I glimpse some features, opportunities, and challenges for the publicly purposed university.  These I will quickly present and at a high level of abstraction.  Where I leave the clouds to seek the concrete, it is only to stimulate your rich thinking about what else we might or should pursue.  Whatever we are to become, it is your vision and your doing that will take us there.

Transformations Continue

First, few outside academia recognize that higher education is already amidst major, sometimes decades-long transformations.  I develop these in the web white paper, Washington’s Now and Future Premier Comprehensive University: Thoughts for a Discussion. They involve revolutions in theories of learning, in the applications of technology, in increased efficiency and effectiveness, in accountability and assessment, in students served, in being student centered, in partnerships, and in outreach.  The publicly purposed university must do a much better job of making citizens, legislators, and others fully aware that today’s universities are very different from those they remember.  And, these transformations that you have already begun must, themselves, be ongoing so do keep up the efforts. 

Marketing and Branding

In the competitive world of today and, certainly, tomorrow, we must clearly communicate who we are and what we offer.  This requires first that we understand and agree upon who we are and where we intend to go.  Only then we can hope to more effectively communicate Western’s distinctiveness.  Our ability to brand and market Western Washington University will only be as good as our ability to reach a collaborative consensus on where we’re going. Those important efforts are already aggressively under way on our campus and involve faculty, staff, students, alumni, community members, elected officials, and trustees.  Please become involved as the results will, if done well, will inform our decisions about just what kind of “publicly purposed” university we would chose to be.


One brand component currently distinguishes us and, certainly, will continue to be a central component of Western’s brand.  We call it engaged excellence, the special approach to educating students that establishes us as a premier institution. Such commitment to top quality will continue to be central.  Here, over the year ahead, as we look to opportunities in graduate education, international education, extended education and to possibly fill holes in our curricula in certain areas such as several in allied health, do help us all keep commitment to premier excellence as the distinguishing feature.

Demonstrable Results

And, that word “demonstrable” is key.  As we compete for support – from the state, from students and their families, from foundations and donors – assertions of academic rigor and relevance, alone, no longer suffice.  Excellence has many dimensions; we must be clear about those that are a priority for us.  And, we must document accomplishments on the dimensions we select as most important to our concept of Western as a leading and publicly purposed university.  Over the year ahead, there are any number of opportunities to advance these efforts: in designing and implementing the Voluntary System of Accountability, in refining and utilizing the decision-making (“dashboard”) indicators, and in taking externally imposed requirements for institutional accreditation, for performance indicators, and for the Washington State Quality Initiative and using the efforts for our own purposes, to better pursue what we care most about in as informed a way as possible.


The publicly purposed university must be ever more entrepreneurial.   Universities are, already, well advanced along this path.  Such efforts, though, are no longer side shows or ways to partially mitigate the consequences of shrinking budgets.  Universities are rich sources of great ideas to meet important needs.  Being entrepreneurial means going beyond having answers and figuring costs to also figuring out where the dollars are to come from.  And, as risks are involved, we must begin with exits in mind, something higher education has not always been good at.   

Almost by definition, entrepreneurial initiatives cannot be pursued top down.  In lean budget times, we have budgeted for an innovation fund for the second year of the biennium to support bottom up ideas.  Several other opportunities immediately come to mind.  Faculty are at their entrepreneurial finest in scholarly and creative work, particularly where external support is provided or possible.  Why do we have perceived organizational, cultural, and departmental impediments to faculty “buying out” their time for such activities?  Work aggressively to change that culture.  The Waterfront project is the quintessential example and opportunity: to create, build, and serve knowing that we will not weaken existing programs to make it happen and expecting scant immediate state fiscal support.


We need regulatory relief from the state.  Top-down, centrally directed control fails in a dynamic and competitive world.  Just think former Soviet Union.  Modern management teaches setting clear goals, providing an environment and resources for success, and then holding accountable.   Those states that get this will be the places where universities are able to devote their full and best efforts to being publicly purposed national leaders.  Washington needs to be there.  It has some ways to go.  We, undoubtedly, have progress to make on our campus: let us know what policies, procedures, and habits are getting in your way.


I believe that a culture of relentless questioning and innovation will distinguish those publicly purposed universities that emerge as national leaders.  Yes, in our classrooms, labs, and studios, we encourage our students to innovate and to take risks.  Our faculty do the same in their scholarship and creative commitments.  But, as with any large and complex organization, the status quo can impose blinders, limiting our field of vision. Where you do come up with innovative and creative ideas, organizational arterial scleroses can impede our shared ability to effect change.  Or, to even receive important but challenging messages.  Such dynamics would prove deadly for an organization seeking to be a leading publicly purposed university in a fundamentally changed fiscal environment.

Publicly Engaged

It may not seem necessary to point out that the publicly purposed university must be publicly engaged.  But, think about this question: “How are these public purposes to be chosen?”  I think the simplest answer is also the best: By the public.  And, for many of us in higher education, that insight may be most transforming.  And, perhaps, most alarming. 

Yes, we have always been accountable to the public’s elected representatives.  But, we have been allowed considerable autonomy in defining our missions and the means by which we pursue them.  But, as a publicly purposed university, it becomes all the more important for us to understand the publics and their purposes for us, unmediated by elections and legislative sessions.  How far are we prepared to go down that road?  Become involved in a campaign this year to test ourselves and just how far down the road we are willing to go – it’s an initiative to start statewide conversations about our future.

Window on the Future

In being publicly purposed it is important that we not abdicate our roles as forward-looking institutions.  Success as a university worthy of the name means knowing what will be needed by those it is our mission to serve – students, the private and public sectors, posterity –  before those we serve may realize the need.  That leadership responsibility remains an essential component for the publicly purposed university.  Here, you are already doing a superb job, I need suggest no additional steps but only remind us that, even as we may invite the public to more clearly define their needs for us, it remains our responsibility to think through how most effectively those needs can be fulfilled through education that is truly higher. Please understand that what I am attempting to describe is not a utopia … nor a dystopia.  I am describing what is already in the works, whether we like it or not.

Yes, our situation is changing.  It’s that watershed we have passed.  We have the responsibility to drive the changes in positive directions.  So, please accept this invitation to join – to be a leader in – a discussion about what our university is to become.

Your involvement is essential.  So is that of others.   I, the vice presidents, and the deans have committed to leading discussions around the state on the subject, something we will announce as “100 Conversations on Public Higher Education and Western’s Roles.”

I will conclude by making this point: it is the interdependence of the three questions I posed about better making the case, making the case itself even better, and if not public, then what are we?   By thoughtfully evolving – by becoming a national leader as a publicly purposed university – we do work toward our stated vision of being the best public comprehensive in the nation.  But, we also make the case clearer and stronger for further state investment. 

While not in our immediate future, in the long run we – more importantly, Washington – could have it both ways: even more publicly purposed and, once again, appropriately publicly funded. This is the outcome we should work for and which I believe the citizens of Washington and the leaders they elect must appreciate and embrace. 

I opened these remarks metaphorically referring to the new academic year as open terrain awaiting our footprints. I have suggested some challenging and, perhaps to your ears, unusual ways to think about the years ahead.  Whatever the direction we settle upon, this is proudly premier Western and the tracks we leave will again be those of trail blazers.


Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


* Katharine C. Lyall and Kathleen R. Sell. The True Genius of America at Risk: Are We Losing our Public Universities to de Facto Privatization? Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Publishing Group, Ace/Praeger Series on Higher Education, 2005.

Page Updated 11.27.2013