Opening Convocation

President Bruce Shepard's Prepared Remarks

September 17, 2010


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.

New beginnings also bring a note of uncertainty. Perhaps trepidation. Ours is an annual journey into the realm of the new, the unknown: new colleagues, new students, a commitment for a paper as yet unwritten. A new experiment or innovation: in a laboratory or in how we support the academic success of students. A need to retool: in an academic specialization or for an administrative responsibility.

That willingness to face – indeed, to seek – the unknown says a lot about us and about why Western is successful. Later, I will use the term adventurous. We care deeply, even passionately. We are committed to being the best. And, we know the best, by definition, blaze their own paths.

And, that is my thesis for this morning's remarks: even in uncertain times, we continue upward – toward our vision of being the very best. And we do so by being adventurous.

In support, I could simply remind you of the excellence we have just celebrated: the awards for excellence that is extraordinary. But which, within the Western context, is far from exceptional!

Congratulations to all the award winners. Cyndie and I look forward to celebrating with you and your significant others at our home tonight.

It is appropriate that our Foundation is the sponsor for the award ceremony because, across the campus, they do so much to enable Western's margin of excellence. Let's show our appreciation to the Foundation and to Jerry Thon, Vice President of the Foundation Board.

We are an exceptionally strong university. We continue to advance.

Our Annual Report, just out, is made thick in reporting the evidence. I also asked leaders – administrative and governance – to select two or three highlights of the year past that we could share this morning. A summary of their reports is available. Please pick up a copy as you leave.

From among so many upward trajectories, I will explore four. They revolve around critical questions: What kind of university are we? What kind of university do we want to be, and what are the key strategies for getting us there?

Decision Making

Consider first our decision processes.

Early on, you reported that one need trumped all: open and transparent decision-making. Year one for me, you built and tried out an open and transparent budget process.

You gave great marks for the results. Truth is, we had just gotten to where any university should be.

Last year, many helped with three additional steps. They take us well beyond those first efforts.

With the Faculty Senate's leadership, the University Planning and Resources Council was formed.

Faculty, vice presidents, and other representatives sit together early on, to understand priorities, needs and values. Rather than selecting from among competing options at the end of a budget process, where meaningful influence is least likely, the UPRC has created a space where positions can be jointly formed (and owned).

It could have blown up. Together, we took the risk. We were adventurous. Better decisions have already resulted. A healthier campus decision-making culture is the real prize.

Next, with the leadership of Rick Benner and critical involvement of UPRC, the capital planning and budgeting process was opened up. We have a brand new process.

Third, was our shared realization that open and transparent is not enough if the decisions are wrong. Acting on that realization, this year's approach to budgeting added features: First, it integrates state dollars with the many other ways we move forward. Second, the process integrates budgeting across six years so we are less likely to lurch from one year's priorities to the next. And third, rather than tying budgeting to a strategic plan with many goals and objectives, the new process zeroes in on one goal and several key strategies.

And notice the values implicit in last year's multiple improvements: Adventurousness, engagement, inclusion, collaboration.

Year one took us to where a university needs to be. Last year, year two, has taken us to where no university I know has gone. That's an upward trajectory.

The Publicly Purposed University

At last year's opening convocation, I spoke of a defining moment: our going from 60% state operating budget support to 40%. No longer "public" in the sense of having the state be our majority stakeholder, just what were we? We rejected the phrase "publicly assisted." Instead, we explored concepts tied together by the phrase "publicly purposed."

Then, some weeks later, one of you did what it is my job to do to you: you asked me a question that took me outside my zone of comfort. I forget the setting – I think it was a Faculty Senate meeting—but I know it was a campus colleague who asked: "If we are publicly purposed, then who defines the public purposes?"

Up to that moment, I had simply assumed the answer to that question was: "We do." We who know the academy, who have the degrees or other specializations, we whose professions involve understanding the world around us and future needs – of students, of societies.

I was somewhat startled when I heard very different words coming out of my mouth: "The public should define its purposes for us." Startled because that answer took me outside my zone of comfort. All the more discomforting, because I realized I was right.

But, there's that theme again: adventure. We knew we needed to ask the public. Not some survey. We needed thoughtful conversations.

We had over 100 of them. Under Vice President Bowers' leadership, people across campus pitched in to lead conversations: vice presidents, deans, governance leaders, faculty, staff, Trustees, Foundation and Alumni Board members. And, we talked to neighbors, alumni, students, donors, private sector business leaders, leaders of unions, leaders of communities of color, leaders of not-for-profits, and elected officials.

The findings are summarized elsewhere. Do again note, though, values implicit in the approach. I mentioned "adventurous." Most certainly engaging, collaborative, and inclusive as well. Inspirational? Well, any number of the conversations I led had folks leaving inspired about our university. And, I left inspired by the esteem and the ambitions the participants had for us.

And, our trajectory? We are not passively absorbing major fiscal blows and trusting things will return to where they once were. We are grabbing hold of our future as publicly purposed. And in so doing, we are helping make that future happen.

Comprehensive Campaign

Securing a "publicly purposed" future for Western will not only require a new vision of a premier public university in an increasingly "post-public" world. It will require us to develop new streams of support.

Many were involved last year in laying the groundwork for a comprehensive fund raising campaign: not only the fund raising professionals in our Advancement Office but, also, our Foundation and Alumni boards, our Trustees, and the deans and vice presidents.

Campaigns begin with a "silent phase" years long, to cultivate and secure leadership gifts. So the progress may not be apparent on campus for some time. Already, though, it is there in building relationships, in reorganizing Advancement to prepare for an intense period of fundraising, and, most importantly, in developing the most persuasive case we can for philanthropic support.

Here, the deans, with Provost Riordan's leadership, were absolutely critical and particularly effective.

Four campaign themes emerged and, suitably arranged for the different audiences we will approach for support, they will be the basis for the case we will make. They all fall under one basic campaign target: to support Western taking the lead … in preparing active minds to be the difference as 21st century global leaders.

As you look at the campaign themes, I think you will find remarkable congruence with Western values I have earlier noted in different contexts. The campaign themes invite and inspire support; our strategy is that of collaborative engagement internally and externally. And to move ahead with a campaign during times like these will make it an adventure.

And, again note the trajectory: It has been over 17 years since Western initiated a comprehensive campaign. Today, I can report that we are well on our way toward launching the next one.

The hard work lies ahead. The efforts of most of us will, at some time or other, be required. Please understand that my campaign responsibilities will unfortunately keep me increasingly away from campus. But I have great confidence in our leadership team: our vice presidents and deans, certainly. But, as members of that powerful campus-wide team I also count governance leaders, union leadership, and leaders across our faculty and within our professional staff – classified included as the professionals they most certainly are.

Marketing and Branding

You told me in year one that we needed to come to clearer understandings of what kind of university we are. And, speaking sometimes even bluntly, you said we had to do a much better job of explaining, communicating, aggressively marketing Western's excellence – your excellence.

So, what is that excellence that distinguishes Western? In both senses of "distinguishes."

You put the stated the question in other ways as well:

We have said, for years, that we intend to be the best university of our type in the nation. Just what is "our type"?

The technically correct Carnegie Classification for Western is: "A&S+Prof/SGC, VHU, FT4/S/HTI, L4/R, Master's L." Try serving that alphabet soup in legislative testimony, a recruitment brochure, or a fund-raising ask.

In the parlance of our times, we needed to "define our brand." Now, "branding" makes the hair on the neck of this academic stand up. It takes me outside my zone of comfort. Maybe it does for you, too.

But, branding properly done is not about selling schlock or compromising our core values to make a buck. Just the opposite: it requires first figuring out what we are best at, distilling Western to its essence. And, capturing those critical points in ways that can be effectively communicated. Not to ourselves. But, to others.

We can't expect people to just intuit what makes Western so special, or wait to be noticed on our merits. We need to be able tell them who we are, in a precise, effective, and consistent way. And, while we each recognize Western to be excellent, we could not assume that we all share the same understanding of what constitutes that excellence.

Branding is about figuring out all of that. So, zone of comfort or not, this is Western and we were again adventurous.

Lots of research was done. Student views, alumni views, your insights into Western and what we are most about.

A broadly representative steering committee did the hard work, for months, of studying the data and engaging in appropriately passionate discussion. This spring, they unanimously endorsed the multiple components of the Western brand. Unanimity! No small feat in an academic culture where we take justifiable pride in preferring to "think otherwise." Sincere thanks to Vice President Swan and the many who worked together so effectively.

What lies ahead? Certainly, translation of the brand into messages that speak to audiences in addition the initial audience, prospective students. But also, marketing lies ahead. Integrated marketing.

Universities have always done an enormous amount of marketing. So, this is not about a new budget, another director, and more staff. No, it is about integrating all the marketing we already do. The now-established brand is the means for integration.

Having now reached closure on brand, we are ahead of many institutions. If we are able to integrate the ways we communicate our distinctive excellence across the many dimensions of Western, then we will have taken a step beyond what most complex universities ever attain. Another upward trajectory, this one in the making.

What is our brand? The components are on the web. It begins with premier undergraduate education. And, what makes it premier? You have been hearing me use the same words all morning: Education that is engaging, inclusive, inviting, collaborative, and adventurous. And, what makes it distinctively Western: an academic environment that inspires innovative learning and commitment to a purposed life. That's what you, our students, our alumni said Western is most about. That's what we will now more aggressively, more consistently, more effectively be saying to others.

Upward Trajectories in Troubling Times

So, four areas from among many that show the upward trajectory that we, together, are on.

I certainly do not want to be Pollyannaish here. There are threats; there are risks. Budget cuts continue. Late yesterday, I reported on the latest cuts we are being required to make. Serious as they are, they are also the coming to pass of the fiscal assumptions we made last year in setting strategies for the three years ahead. Because we were realistic and sober then, we have been appropriately prudent in our preparations.

There are risks for the continuing success of our university. But, it is not our strategies that put us at risk. It is the rapid decline in state support that puts Western's future at risk. Our approaches are to minimize the most immediate threats, focusing on sustaining excellence long term. Absolutely critical will be the filling of those tenure-track positions that, in the shorter term, are being kept open.

And, as we look beyond Western and Washington to the nation and around the globe, it is very easy to become seriously dismayed. You must feel it. I do. That is why I began with the upward trajectories. Not because I was trying to make you feel better. It was because we are the solution, not the problem. Keeping Western on those upward trajectories places within our hands the capacity to address those wider societal challenges. Challenges we may find dismaying but, at adventurous Western, never disabling.

We must not and will not stop our aggressive efforts to reverse the decline in state support. Western's vision cannot be fully realized without that help. More important, brighter futures for Washington go by the wayside if our state does not reverse its bottom-tier support for public baccalaureate education. And, there is an interesting irony here: to the extent that, in becoming a leading publicly purposed university by adapting to certain current realities, we become all the more worthy of future public support.

Conclusion: From Listening to Leading

So, how do we proceed? You know my basic philosophy of leading: listen; ask questions; trust that groups will find better and more effective answers than a president might.

Listening we have done and will continue to do. But, it is also time to set direction.

Opportunely so. We have a strategic plan. It is due for revision. Relying on leadership provided by the UPRC, we need to complete the revision this year. Not this academic year, this calendar year because, come winter and spring, we will be building, bottom up, our budget for the next biennium. And, we need to know where we are going. And, our key strategies for getting there.

Is that timeline realistic? A lot of the groundwork is in place. Through last year's discussions with UPRC and our Trustees, we have a pretty good idea of what kind of plan we need: a plan focused on one or two goals and several key strategies for attaining the goals.

We also have the published results of the 90 campus listening sessions, summaries of the 100 Conversations, and the research results upon which the branding initiative was based.

We have the data to work with. We also have the requisite intellectual proclivities. After all, deriving meaning from data is an important part of what we do. Think of our focused strategic plan as nothing more than interpreting Western's mission in light of current data, the looks we have taken internally and externally. It is through connecting our mission to the data, the current situation, that our focus is made strategic.

That focused strategic plan will be Western's, not the president's. I will not be shy, though – this morning and in months ahead – about sharing and advocating for what I think the data are telling us.

Some findings I have already shared – and, from four different directions. The value commitments at the core of Western's culture: premier undergraduate education that is inspiring, engaging, inclusive, and collaborative. And, a university that is adventurous.

But what about one or two goals and several key strategies? Here's what I took from the 100 Conversations.

There is only one goal and it's not about us, it's about being publicly purposed:

To help build a stronger Washington.

Evermore making Western … Washington's university.

How do we do that? Just a couple of strategies, again drawing on the 100 Conversations.

Foremost: we maintain and, as funded, expand baccalaureate capacity in areas of critical need to the state and that build upon Western's strengths.

That is a cumbersomely long sentence. I need to unpack it a bit. First is the emphasis on undergraduate education.

That does not mean that we overlook graduate programs and research. No, and, in fact, we have made progress in our being recognized for those strengths. Indeed, when Governor Gregoire was on campus this spring to address our graduates, she noted that Washington has "three research universities." The difference at Western—and this is a key corollary strategy—is that our strength in research and graduate programs adds excellence to (rather than draws resources away from) our outstanding undergraduate programs.

"Build upon quality" are also key words. You told me, and we repeatedly heard in the 100 Conversations: "protect quality, build on strength."

Does that mean we never do something new? No. Indeed, because you asked about doing more in such areas as graduate programs, international programs, extended education programs, allied health, and summer programs, further discussion was initiated last year by Provost Riordan working closely with our Faculty Senate. These conversations, I hope, are taking us outside our zones of comfort. But, I also believe we must hold to a key corollary strategy: When it comes to new areas, we must not be driven by the dollars; the new ventures we do choose are those we can shape to add value to that which we already do well.

Another corollary strategy: partnerships, partnerships, partnerships. To the extent we can partner with public and private sector entities, we multiply our effectiveness. And, we expand our political base through a politics of entanglement in which more and more entities have a stake in our success. And, in our excellence.

I also pick the words "critical to the state of Washington" with great care. Not the political shibboleths ubiquitous in Olympia: "workforce development" and "high tech, high demand." Outside of Olympia, in the 100 Conversations, they understand—they demand—that we prepare graduates for engaged lives, for organizations with complex needs, and for careers not yet known.

What kinds of jobs are critical to our state? And how to go about building on what we do well? Consider some facts. The employers with the most Western grads are Boeing and Microsoft. And, we prepare outstanding engineers and programmers. But, by far, the bulk of our alums working and helping advance those two enterprises come from two Western colleges: The College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Business and Economics. One of the three at Microsoft who led the successful development of Windows 7 is a Western alum. She graduated from our College of Business and Economics. We have an alum at Boeing who is in a senior vice president's position. Her major at Western? German.

Strategy two: Proactively bring baccalaureate education ever more within the grasp of growing populations critical to brighter futures for all.

Our state ranks 48th out of the 50 states in percentage of its population in public baccalaureate programs. That is why building capacity is strategy one. But, the truth is that our state does not have coming generations with the aspirations and preparation to succeed in baccalaureate programs. Here, strategy 2 becomes the second way we help build a stronger Washington. And, partnerships will, again, be a critical corollary strategy.

The third strategy is to further focus Western's strengths on economic and community development.

Here, the link to building a stronger Washington is obvious. And, we do much already. You do much already. Somewhat to my surprise, though, we did learn in the 100 Conversations that what Western does do as a premier university was better known and appreciated the farther from Bellingham we were. Yet economic and community development starts with being stewards of place, taking care of the communities we call home.

The final strategy is to further build internal institutional effectiveness.

Not very racy. But, perhaps, the most critical strategy of all. Whatever our aspirations to deliver on public purposes, we will fail if, internally, we are not up to it. And, you know how thinly stretched we are.

Some improvements are in place. I mentioned open and transparent decision making. Progress has been made in building better, more accurate information systems explicitly designed to support better decision making. Further improvements are underway.

We must identify and address the ways we are tying our own hands. Recently, we reviewed a survey HR is proposing to pilot in personnel evaluations. One item had to do with: "complies with institutional policies." I said that was OK so long as we added another criterion: "questions institutional policies."

Our business practices and organizational arrangements are being critically reexamined. Some things we will stop doing. Or, stop doing in traditional ways. Your insights and your adventurousness are critical to the success of these efforts.

Well, there you have it. We continue on an upward trajectory. I believe we are moving toward a clearer understanding of the core values, the priorities, the strategic focus that will move us forward.

I will summarize with a question, a question that our strategic focus must address. I am asked it all the time. We are most certainly not a regional university. We are also not the UW or WSU. What are we?

I have advocated that, when we say we are a publicly purposed university that means we are driven first by the commitment to build brighter futures for the State of Washington. Our key strategies are built around high quality baccalaureate education. It is a role Western is uniquely positioned to fulfill.

This I absolutely know: if through our vision, our focus, and our deeds, we earn a sense of public ownership, the people of Washington will take pride in, protect, and work for the success of that which they emotionally and not merely legally "own."

Your jobs are to think otherwise, to challenge, and I trust you are. I look forward to much passionate discussion and I know you will have better ideas. This one I don't think we can budge on, though. And, because, after two years, I know the ethos at Western, I am confident that you wholeheartedly agree: whatever our vision for Western, whatever our strategic focus, it will not be about us. It will be about the difference we make.

And there's the fifth upward trajectory that we are on. This morning and in the months ahead, we will be openly, passionately, debating and then deciding upon a clear strategic direction for Western.

There truly are so many positives. That there are is all due to your dedication, your values, your hard work. And, to our being together. You are and are recognized as Western's strength. And, staying together, our collective strength multiplies.

Those are the practical reasons for being together. But, I trust that you also find reasons similar to my own personal ones: my life professionally and personally is enriched through being here with you.

We have an adventurous year ahead. This is Western. We welcome it.

Thank you.


Page Updated 11.27.2013