Opening Convocation

President Bruce Shepard

September 16, 2011


Cyndie joins with me in offering a warm welcome to our returning friends and colleagues. And a special welcome to our newest colleagues and friends-to-be. This morning, we share that rich emotional brew of anticipation, energy, and readiness. The pleasure of simply being back together. The excitement of a new year ahead.

Opening convocation is a time for us to reflect: on the year just concluded, on the year ahead. Looking back, there were challenges. As I thought about the long list, I found a curious common denominator: yes, we faced each challenge forthrightly, even successfully. But, also, we emerged in each case stronger – most often emerging stronger because we were closer, together as a campus and a community.

Precisely for that reason, when looking forward I am optimistic about our shared future. Yes, challenges lie ahead. My optimism is firmly rooted in having seen you who are the university so superbly responding to tests and stresses the severity of which I have not previously encountered in my, now, forty years of serving in the academy.


But, then, at no time in my career have I encountered such pervasively extraordinary university colleagues: faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents community and philanthropic supporters. This morning we celebrated outstanding examples of what, at Western, is our broadly based excellence. Congratulations to all the award winners. Cyndie and I look forward to celebrating with you and your significant others at our home tonight.

Later in my remarks I will report on a legislative session that, all things considered, was positive, even of historical significance for public higher education. I have invited our local legislative leaders to join with us so that we could express our appreciation. On the Senate side, we are particularly indebted to Senator Doug Erickson, who is with us this morning, and to Senator Kevin Ranker, who had a prior commitment. Both gave us major chunks of their time to help them deeply understand the issues, and then worked diligently on behalf of higher education, Western in particular, helping forge the bi-partisan Senate approach that, in the end, prevailed. In the House, Representative Jeff Morris was there for us, like a rock, working very hard on our behalf, and mobilizing key colleagues to do the same. He joins us today. Representative Kristine Lytton and Representative Vincent Buys were similarly committed and, while they regret that they cannot be here this morning, they will join in the celebration for our award winners later today. I ask Senator Ericksen and Representative Morris to please stand so that we can show our appreciation to them and, through them, to the many legislators who helped protect brighter futures for Washington.

We build upon the foundations others have solidly laid. Each convocation, I invite former presidents to attend. Joe and Karen Morse are travelling but send their best wishes; we are fortunate to have with us President Emeritus Ken Mortimer and his wife, Kay Nagle and President Emeritus Jerry Flora and Rosemary Flora. Let us show our appreciation to them, and through them, to so many others who are responsible for the gift of this fine university of which we are all so proud.

How fine a university? Our Annual Report, just out, is made thick in cataloging the evidence. To save trees – and dollars – we are not handing out copies, but its URL is noted in the program insert. Please check it out. Looking back at so much that was accomplished, so much that you accomplished, I hope you share my deep pride in the people who are this university.

The Year Just Passed

Looking to the year passed, I have already introduced my thesis: we were tested, severely. Tests we could have failed, challenges that could have driven us down. Or, driven us apart. We did not merely pass the tests. We were made stronger. Made stronger by being closer, by being even clearer about our mission and priorities, and by renewing our commitments to them.

Dwight Clark

A year ago, we were riding the excitement and energy that a new academic year begins. Then, a first year student went missing under circumstances none of us could then fathom. They are still hard to fathom even a year later.

We searched, we hoped, we feared, we felt, we prayed, … Not individually but together; as a campus, and as a community. We gathered, we continually communicated, we shared. And, together we mourned.

We took care of each other. I heard from so many of you. One senior faculty colleague, about a month ago, wrote to me:

This has been the longest academic year in my memory. I think one of the high points was also the low one for the year – the tragedy with which the academic year opened, Dwight Clark's death. I wish it had turned out differently. But, I think we also had a chance to see just what a difference it can make to take each other seriously as human beings. Our willingness to meet, to talk openly, and to provide students with a model for handling both anxiety and grief was especially exemplary.

A great tragedy. Also, though, a harbinger of the commitments to open communication and to each other that we would be called upon to repeat throughout the year.

Sustaining Excellence

Very soon as we faced further supplemental cuts in September. Then, through the dark days of December, January, and February, we were looking at cuts far greater than those precedent-setting cuts we took in the biennium just concluded. We weighed and rejected the limited options available: to greatly increase tuition and become an elite-serving university; to jettison our most expensive programs and become a smaller university focused on a lower cost liberal arts core; or, put our heads in the sand and become just another mediocre regional university.

We realized that temporizing measures (accepting more students for the tuition alone, keeping tenure lines open for a second biennium, and hoping things would get better) would drive us directly to that last option: mediocre regional. We took a gamble: that we could make more fundamental realignments and thereby sustain the Western promise to our students and to our state.

At the time, I had not a clue whether that would be possible. I still am not certain. But, we all agreed that the alternatives were not acceptable: elite serving, smaller, mediocre.

There is still much for us to do here and I will talk about that as I turn to the year ahead. But, consider the result. In preparing our budget for new biennium, we did cut once again. But, we also made significant reallocations. And, by so doing, added major new dollars to an "access to quality" initiative including: increased need-based financial aid, resumption of tenure track hiring, protecting core liberal arts, elimination of more course bottlenecks, and expansion of offerings in areas of growing and high demand.

And how did that happen? We could have been driven apart. I have known universities where the habits are to circle the wagons and shoot inwards. But, not here. We worked together, every department, every employee group, and went about thoughtfully addressing the challenges before us. And, I saw more clearly than ever what I think most unites us in the face of potentially divisive challenges: we all deeply care about Western students and the quality and completeness of their Western education.

Reaffirming the Mission, Redirecting the Vision, and Replacing the Strategic Plan

This time, last year, I issued a challenge, one I had very serious doubts about our ability to carry off. We had to have clear agreement on mission, vision, and strategic direction. We had to be clear about our mission. We had to redirect our vision: a vision that was not about us but, rather, was about the differences we make. And, we needed an entirely new plan that would logically follow from the mission and vision. Not the usual, 10-page variety with 47 goals and objectives but, rather, a plan that would fit on one page, that would have a single goal and only several objectives.

And, I said we needed it three months, not the usual 18 universities take. With fiscal clouds darkening, we were going to have to put the plan to work three months after the call to begin building it.

Once again, I learned never to underestimate Western. Our university, with the UPRC in the fore, very ably lead by Jeff Newcomer and working across the entire campus, had the new strategic plan, one that followed an entirely different philosophy, ready not in three months, but in two. And, a plan with this fundamental difference: A vision and strategic direction that was not about us but, rather, was about the differences we make.

Again note, though, that these are efforts that can drive other organizations apart. Or, at least, stalemate them. Particularly when tough budget decisions are looming and will be based upon the plan. Rather than being divided, though, we stayed together. And, are demonstrably stronger as a result.

Pay Cuts

Here is an issue not all of you may have tracked, but our classified and pro staff certainly did: the Governor and the legislature were considering across-the-board cuts by mandating across-the-board unpaid leave.

We argued that this made no sense: it was a temporary fix for a recurring base-budget challenge; it was the expedient rather than the thoughtful approach; and, it saved little money, since we would have to hire back to fill gaps in critical areas. We argued for the flexibility to make the cuts and savings strategically rather than across-the-board. We were not trying to duck the cuts; we were trying to make them in ways that best protected our commitments to our students and to the state. The legislature gave us that flexibility.

We used it. That required great patience, understanding and trust on the part of our represented colleagues and pro staff. Ask them how they feel, today, though, about the result. I think you will hear, I certainly have, that they feel great satisfaction with the result even though the cuts still had to be made. Again, a test that could have divided us, instead, brought us together.

The Legislative Session

The legislative session just concluded was the most seriously threatening I have ever experienced. And, in the end, one of the most successful legislative sessions I have been involved in.

Why so scary? We began last December with the Governor's budget: it proposed net cuts to Western (that is, after adding tuition increases back in) that were equal to the entire operating budgets of three of our seven colleges. That's equivalent to laying off 20% of our faculty. And, we were told, repeatedly, that that would be the high water mark and to prepare for worse cuts.

We started with cuts to Western that were not only disastrously large but larger than those at any of the other five public baccalaureates. We ended with serious cuts but not at the level we were looking at in December and January. And, Western's cuts were the smallest of the cuts to the public baccalaureates, substantially smaller, as the legislature agreed, after decades of our making the case, to this time address almost half of the historical underfunding of Western.

And that was only part of the story. Truly watershed legislation passed having to do with flexibility, accountability, and coordination of public higher education. The capital budget was unexpectedly good for Western. You and our students will see the difference in our most widely used instructional facility, Fraser Hall as well as in classrooms across the campus.

What accounts for this? There are many nuances. Bottom line was this, though: we were active like we never before have been; we were together like we never before have been; we were willing to tell it like it really was; we were on message like we never before have been. Faculty and staff. Unions. Parents. Alumni. Students. Trustees. Private sector allies. Western prominently in the lead on all fronts.

Again, threats of a once-in-a-career magnitude. Yet we came out far better than expected. Because we were together. Here, special kudos are due to our student leadership, who were there with us on all issues and with a steadfast commitment to preserving the quality of their education. Unity with our students really was the difference between serious cuts and total disaster.

Is this Just Presidential Hype?

With all we went through, are my assertions about our continuing strength just presidential hype? No. I wanted you to see some of the evidence and that is the reason for the handout inserted in today's program. Please take a glance at it.

We have long been recognized for our overall excellence in the, admittedly, too ballyhooed but widely followed rankings by U.S. News and World Reports. But, look at the other recognitions that have recently come our way last year without our hardly trying:

  • Placed prominently on many lists recognizing green and sustainable enterprises, the latest being our ranking of 14th in the nation by the Sierra Club as a "cool campus"
  • One of the top universities recognized for the efficiency of our business practices
  • Recognized as one of the top "veteran friendly" campuses in the nation
  • Ranked among very top universities nationally in baccalaureate degrees awarded to Native Americans
  • Recognized by the White House among a select few universities, public or private, for our dedication to community service.

And, one I think we all should be particularly proud of for it is our shared accomplishment:

  • Based on anonymous surveys of faculty and staff satisfaction, the Chronicle of Higher Education recognized us as an outstanding place to work.

It is more than national rankings, though. At our last Trustee's Meeting, Trustees Munro and Thompson, who each travel in wide and diverse circles, reported what many of us are also hearing: there's a real "buzz" building about Western – heard among high school students and in corner suites on the top floors of Seattle office buildings.

The Year Ahead

Our base remains strong, then, as we look to the year ahead. There will be no shortage of challenges coming our way. But, if the recent history I just reviewed is any guide, these may also become opportunities to be stronger.


I was advised by some to address here this morning: "My vision for Western, looking ahead."

Time for a primer on leadership.

The question is not, "What is my vision," it is, "What is Western's vision."

Leadership is about listening and not about giving answers. Indeed, my discipline, political science, teaches that we should look with alarm upon those who come in with "the answers."

There is a lot of listening going on: initial meetings with every department, the 100 conversations, the extensive research on students, alumni, faculty, and staff values, the research and many sessions that went into building a fundraising campaign with themes true to Western.

There was remarkable and reassuring consistency in what we heard. There is the promise to our students that we capture with the four words "active minds changing lives." That phrase only hints, of course, at the deeper and research-based nature of what students, alumni, faculty, and staff find distinctively compelling about Western – our commitment to the life of the intellect but combined also with a commitment to lead a purposed life.

I have also spoken of our promise to the state. That came directly from listening – from the "100 Conversations." The promise, basically, is the revised strategic plan you developed, one that looks outward to the differences we can make. I thought it important enough to include on the back pages of today's program. In my mind, it boils down to this: even as public fiscal support diminishes, we remain firmly and proudly publicly purposed.

My role is to keep your vision for Western clearly foremost. You, thousands strong with a wealth of knowledge, creativity, and insights will deliver on those promises in ways that "leadership" could never even begin to imagine.

Uncomfortable Questions

There are several other roles required of effective leaders, as my discipline teaches me. The first we all share – to ask questions that take us outside our zones of comfort. That is second nature to us as we pursue truths in the sciences, the humanities, the arts, the professions. It is the fundamental technique we rely upon in liberal education, education intended to liberate our students from the tyranny of their past, unquestioned experience. Yet, how effectively do we turn that critical technique inward, with ourselves as the target?

At Western, we are not afraid to do so. Consider examples that began with meetings Provost Riordan and I had with several College and departmental faculties last spring. Just two examples to illustrate.

With Fairhaven, there was the challenge of protecting the essence of their nationally highly regarded but expensive approach to undergraduate education, while sharing all that they have to contribute to the broader education of all of our students. And, frankly, getting costs more in line with the rest of campus. Provost Riordan and I are excited by the thinking we then heard and by the actions we now see being taken.

With Huxley, there was a different challenge. Cost-wise, Huxley helps subsidize other, more expensive programs. Huxley was a trailblazer forty years ago and remains one of the marquee programs by which external audiences recognize Western's distinctive excellence. Yes, forty years ago, it was revolutionary to create an interdisciplinary college focused upon the environment within discipline-bound (and, perhaps, hide bound) academia. But the world changes. Environmental issues loom ever larger. Yet, today, we are, arguably, a university of the environment. So, what is the role of Huxley now to be, drawing upon and contributing to that university of the environment so that, forty years hence, Huxley will still be one of those units by which our distinctive excellence is widely known?

Our colleagues are working hard at finding answers. I have great confidence in the quality of the answers they will report to us in December. Because I have great confidence in them. Others are working on questions just as fundamental and as challenging in Business and Financial Affairs, in Enrollment and Student Services, in Advancement, and in University Relations. And, I have similar great confidence in the answers they will arrive at. My point here, though, is very simple: the years ahead will call for us, more and more, to unhesitatingly raise and address questions that take us outside our zones of comfort. That is one of my responsibilities in serving you – to ask such questions.

And, by the way, that is a mutual responsibility: you need to be asking me questions that take me outside my zone of comfort.

The Strategic Context

So, we owe you careful listening and continual clarity on what you set as Western's fundamental commitments, and the asking of questions that keep us thinking forward. We also owe you our best ideas about the context – the threats and opportunities – that must be considered as we look to the years ahead.

Our fundamental mission and strategic vision do not change: how we can best go about them, though, is determined by our thoughtful understanding of the strategic context in which they are to be pursued.

I will bring my comments to conclusion by providing a brief overview of this strategic context as I currently see it. And so that you may challenge, improve, and expand upon what I currently see as most relevant to how we go about our mission in the years ahead.


We always seem to focus upon the budget, first and foremost. Understandable in these times, but this is all I am going to say on this subject: Yes, budget woes for Washington lie ahead. Serious ones.

This I do have to warn you: with yesterday's revenue forecast, expect once again to hear rhetoric proposing further highly disproportionate, immediate, and, as happened last winter, initially disastrous cuts proposed for public higher education.

And, as worked so well last winter, we must, yet again, continue to stay together and be on message. I am more optimistic about the long run than I was several years ago. This is because I see real leadership coming forward in the legislature to fight for higher education. To fight for higher education because they understand it is the only significant lever state government has to be able to deliver brighter futures long run.

I could go on but enough said about budget. There are other concerns out there that pose, perhaps, greater threats, that are closer to what universities are really about – it's not just about dollars, after all – and that provide opportunities to engage our creativity and innovation.

Sustaining Quality

Our quality is top notch. I have cited repeated evidence of the ways in which, for external audiences, our quality continues to shine. But, the inside view we all share is conditioned by the knowledge that our quality it is hanging by a very thin thread.

Our reputation for excellence rests upon our ability to successfully compete for top notch students able to benefit fully from working with outstanding faculty and staff. Having frozen hiring of tenure-track faculty for three years, were we to extend the freeze, the bedrock upon which our academic quality rests would more resemble quicksand. To prevent that, we have dug deeper, done more strategic reallocation, in order to begin, once again, the process of filling selected tenure track lines.

But, then, we face another challenge. When it comes to attracting and retaining excellent faculty and staff, we are becoming increasingly uncompetitive. This is because, of course, we compete for top talent in a national marketplace, and no other state slashed public higher education to the extent the state of Washington has. And because, today, more and more states are finding it essential to put money back into higher education.

Buttressing this aspect of our recipe for excellence is a key part of our comprehensive fundraising campaign. But, that alone will not be enough. And, with over 80% of our budget in personnel expenses, our ability to reallocate for such purposes is severely limited.

Certain audiences are not going to want to hear this, but we must make competitive compensation a priority when we talk with the legislature about budgets for the next biennium. We all have to be making that argument. I certainly will be, forcefully.

Not because competitive compensation is, alone, the goal. Rather, because that is a means critical to the goals that drive us: delivering on the promise to our students of excellence in their education and delivering on our promise to the state of applying our strengths to meet critical state needs.

Continuing to Attract Top Notch Students

I believe our ability to continue to successfully compete for top notch students is as big a threat as any other we might face. High school graduation rates are now flat. Within those flat rates, the segments of the graduating classes who are growing in proportion come from families where parents are least likely to have gone to college. These are families of lower income as well. Yet, with state support disappearing, we are becoming more and more dependent on increasing tuition. You see the train wreck looming.

Fortunately, Washington continues to be able to fund need-based aid at well above national norms. Western has critically reexamined all of its approaches to financial aid and will be announcing initiatives even more closely aligned with our distinctive approach of active minds changing lives. On the philanthropic side, we are currently a "scholarship poor" university, but will be addressing that through what is a top priority for our fundraising campaign.


It is about having top notch students. It is also about having diverse top notch students. Currently, we reflect the state in the diversity of our student body. Each year, we beat the prior year's standard for diversity. The diversity of our faculty and staff has held its own even as we have retrenched substantially in the number of Western employees.

These statistics should provide no satisfaction, though. The numbers were small to begin with and remain too low. Here, I know, for you tell me so, we must be doing better. And, as I have repeatedly said, if in ten years we are, as a faculty, administration and staff, as white as we are today, we will have failed in our commitment to deliver on the state's critical needs.

Diversifying our faculty and staff is certainly the right thing to do. But, it is also a critical means to the end of successfully attracting and effectively supporting an increasingly diverse student body.

Truth is, the numbers of students we need – our state needs – from the most rapidly growing segments of our state are simply not out there, prepared and motivated to succeed at a place like Western. So, we must be in this for the long-run, raising aspirations, mentoring, and attending to the pipeline.

Baccalaureate Capacity

So far, I have been looking at the strategic context for Western. There is also a huge threat to brighter futures for our state. As you know, we rank 48th out of the 50 states in the baccalaureate capacity Washington chooses to provide for its people. Our modern world demands, ever more, people with baccalaureate degrees. At a minimum.

Our state, to date, has relied upon being an attractive place to live. People with higher education move to Washington. Our state's approach, over decades, has been to educate our sons and daughters just enough to be able to go to work for them.

Those net migration rates by educational attainment are softening for our state.

I believe Washington will respond to this grave threat to our future competitiveness. But, as Washington begins to invest in expanding baccalaureate capacity, what should our response be? It is not just about getting bigger, although that could be one response. Do we stay the same size but shift the programs we offer in response to state funding? Do we stay the same size locally but expand off our campus? Do we change the mix of graduate and undergraduate programs? To what extent do we rely on alliances and partnerships?

When will Washington turn to address this threat to its future, and expand what resembles less a baccalaureate pipeline than a baccalaureate pipette? Maybe next biennium. Maybe later. This I know, though: we should be beginning, today and through the next year, to figure out how we can best respond. Develop the ideas, flesh them out, build the partnerships and the relationships necessary to make them happen. So that we are prepared to respond quickly and in a situation where competitors will abound.

Not because bigger is better for Western. We are going to flourish regardless. But, because this is a serious threat to our state and our commitment is to use our areas of strength to address critical state needs.

Baccalaureate Education or Baccalaureate Diplomas?

Well-meaning people in leadership positions do recognize that Washington MUST expand access to baccalaureate education. And the response of some? Well, there is no money. So, we are asked – I have heard this request in several offices at the State Capitol -- to discover ways to double our baccalaureate degree production while receiving even less state support.

First, understand this: Washington's six public universities are the most efficient in the nation on a cost-per-degree basis and are the most productive in terms of percentage of students who successfully complete.

Starting as the most efficient, we have become ever more so. And, are continuing to do so. However, the rest of the nation's public universities are under the same pressures we are to be relentlessly efficient. Leading edge and inventive we are. But, these are extremely serious matters for our state's future so we must also be coldly realistic. On its surface, it is absurd to think that there is a "magic bullet" out there that has eluded the rest of the country but that we can discover here in Washington.

So, is this what the psychologists call "magical thinking" – think it is so, and so it will be? I fear not.

Last session, there was favorable legislative response to approaches that promise baccalaureate degrees to those who study on their own. When help is needed, these students contact people staffing phone banks. All the while the provider is collecting the same levels of tuition we charge. There is also a very serious push to take a two-year institution and turn it into a baccalaureate institution. And without, the claim is, major additional state support. How? By charging the same tuition levels we do. And, maintaining a staff that currently consists almost entirely (80%) of adjuncts and part-time faculty.

Anybody can make those approaches work. At least financially. But, in these attempts at academic alchemy, lead remains lead no matter the patina. There may be an expansion of baccalaureate diplomas. But, not baccalaureate education.

I doubt the people of our state, our sons and daughters, current employers, and the enterprises we seek to attract will settle for second (or is it third of fourth?) best.

This, I am absolutely certain of as we make our plans for the years ahead. Here lies a path Western will never go down.

We will relentlessly innovative in our pedagogical methods. We will not just use but create the innovations in educational applications of emerging technologies. We will continue to aggressively and proudly collaborate with our two-year partners. We will seek to reach populations not well-served by traditional higher education. We will seek to provide education to people where they are in their lives, in their careers, across our flatting global. One constant will remain, though, our commitment to our students to provide the quality of education so many -- many more than we can accommodate -- seek from Western – active minds changing lives.


So, how does all this come together? Really, through our integrated budget and planning process. How do we strategically plan while not locking in our creativity, locking up your creativity in adapting to changing circumstances?

Our approach is to keep the plan, centrally, very simple, one page, something we all can likely remember. Again, it's at the back of the program. Then, bottom-up and in response to those priorities, and within the strategic factor such as those I just outlined well in mind, we decide what, over the years ahead, we would propose to do.

We take a rolling six-year view, knowing nobody can see six years out. So, we expect those rolling plans to continually adjust to changing circumstances, better ideas, and systematic feedback as we innovate. We count on failures, for, if there are none, then we are not really innovating. We attend to the infrastructure – physical and human – essential to success whatever the eventual direction. Dwight Eisenhower, the master planner of D-Day put it this way: "Plans are nothing, planning is everything."

This we will seriously be about in the year ahead. Last year, it made no sense to do so for we were fighting for our lives. Those fights will continue but I really believe it is time to be turning our attention to building brighter futures.

I do not know, then, what your answers will be to the questions now before us: the particulars of how we will deliver on our promises to students and to Washington in the years ahead. I do know that they will be your answers and not mine. And, I have great confidence in you and in your capacity to answer the questions. That confidence rests soundly upon the record you have established through very tough times. I hope you share with me the energy that comes from looking forward, turning to questions of building, creating, innovating. For our students, for our State, and for the world they are an inseparable part of.

We remain strong. Because of you. We have a year of challenges and opportunities ahead that will be successfully addressed. Because of you. And, Cyndie and I are so delighted to again be starting a new academic year at Western. Because of you.

Have a great year. Thank you.


Page Updated 11.27.2013