Opening Convocation

President Bruce Shepard


[As the house lights come up, and stage lights go down, President Shepard steps forward, takes out his iPhone and raises it to the audience…]

Say cheese!

[He takes a photo of the audience, and then pauses to send a simple tweet: “Thank you all”]

Thanks for the patience.  This old dog is trying to learn new tricks.  Have been experimenting with Twitter and just had to send an Opening Convocation tweet.

Actually, that’s going to be the theme for my remarks this afternoon:  trying new things.

First, though, a warm welcome from Cyndie and me.  A special welcome to the newest among our Western community.  I have heard much about you and know how fortunate we are to have you.

And, congratulations to our award winners.  Western’s hallmark is excellence.  Our award winners epitomize it.  Cyndie and I look forward to further celebrating with you this evening.

We build that excellence upon foundations others have solidly laid.

We do have the good fortune to have with us 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.

Jerry, you once proudly pointed out to me that you had been hanged in effigy three times.  I was in the middle of some crisis and you were seeking to reassure me by pointing out that I “had a long way to go” to match you.

Never reluctant to speak your mind, imagine, Jerry, if you’d had the capacity as president to tweet, 140-character blast at a time.  24/7.  To anybody and everybody…Perhaps then the world’s record for effigial hangings?

Humor aside, we are proud of what you did for Western.  And proud to have you here.

The Successful Year Just Passed and the Challenges Ahead

As the previous academic year drew to a close, any number of you observed that it had been a very successful year.  But, also, that we really need a break

I was among you.

When that June day of three spring commencements concluded, I tossed off my regalia, Cyndie and I put puppies Andy and Lucy in the already-packed car, and we were heading out of town before Carver had completely emptied.  Do hope you also found opportunities to recharge.

It should not come as any surprise that the most successful years are the ones that require the most of us.  Our successes were not given to us.  Our successes had to be created. Under stress.  With stakes high.

What successes?  The list is long.  Do take a few minutes to check out the online Annual Report.  I believe you will be impressed.

No More Cuts

One obvious reason for feeling good about last year: zero additional cuts for Western during the last legislative session.

But, that did not just happen.  Indeed, had the initial scenario prevailed – the Governor’s proposed budget – we would have faced huge cuts …on top of those already taken.

Working together, we rewrote that gubernatorial script.  We got involved in retail politics.  We were on message.  We were together.  We were engaged.   Students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff, Trustees, administration, community advocates, unions.  

There was a critical reawakening and reengagement of natural allies among private sector leaders.

Using no state resources there were major advances in pro-higher ed and overtly political involvement:  being fully engaged with the Seattle Times’ Greater Good Campaign, putting in place sophisticated capabilities to rally targeted constituencies, and forming a political action committee to support political candidates.

Not coincidentally but absolutely critical:  Real leaders in the legislature stepped forward to argue for the critical role of public higher education.

Running scared also helped.  This time around, we chose not to put our campus through the wringer of having to plan for more cuts-on-top-of-cuts.  Instead, we bet we could beat back the proposed cuts. 

High stakes if we failed.  For, we had made no Plan B.

Because of you and your relentless efforts, we did not need a Plan B.  For this, I am deeply grateful.  To you.  Thank you all.

Looking ahead, I wish I could promise respite.  I cannot.  As dramatic as the “no more cuts” outcome was, we must view it not as a turnaround completed.  Rather, it is a beginning. 

You have created a set of initiatives that build upon Western’s strength in order to address key needs of the state.  We must push that agenda hard  … not for Western but for Washington. 

Washington’s success so depends upon not merely stabilizing but significantly growing the baccalaureate pipeline. 

And, in order to serve that publicly purposed mission even more effectively, we also must work hard to have the state further address the fact that Western still receives less funding per student than any of the other publics – two year or four year.

Hiring tenure-track faculty

After four years of a freeze in filling tenure lines and because of successful rebasing, this last year we started 39 searches.  It is hard to explain to a non-academic just how much this means. 

In the mere act of searching itself:  The stimulation of again engaging with colleagues in intense discussion of what the department will most need - looking to the future.  In going through applications rich with intellectual promise.  In critically evaluating the potential of visiting candidates.  In joining with colleagues and candidates where disciplinary issues passionately cared about are debated … from fresh perspectives. 

These rigorous search processes have brought us a group of wonderful new faculty who we look forward to working with and learning from.

There were 7 faculty searches we chose to keep open in order to search again this year. There were 3 open positions that were filled as part of dual career accommodations for current faculty.  For the 29 remaining, 58% of the hires were women and 17% were faculty of color.  Both percentages represent significant jumps up.

Every year, from this stage and at this time, you have heard me say that, if in decades ahead, we are as white as we are today, we will have failed as a university.  You showed, in the numbers I just gave, that you are not about to let such failure happen.  From the bottom of my soul – for there is nothing I care more deeply about – I say “Thank you, all.”

Such improving numbers remain, of course, just a start.

As we enjoy a future made brighter by its diversity, I am announcing a new program.  Beginning winter quarter, we will be offering opportunities for Western employees to take classes in conversational Spanish.  At university expense and on university time.  Priority will go first to front line colleagues staffing our offices serving with students and the public.

We do so not so much because Spanish fluency is necessary to our future function but, rather, as a statement of our commitment to more diverse futures.  And, as testimony to the enrichment, the cultural vitality, the chances for personal and growth, and the pure fun to be found in that diversity.

We also have the results of surveys of campus climate as judged by students and by faculty.  This year, we will also ask similar questions of classified and professional staff colleagues. 

We have learned that the campus climate experiences reported by women, by racial and ethnic minorities, and by gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and bisexuals are different from the campus climate reported by majority counterparts.  Different in unacceptable ways.

Unacceptable to all of us who care so deeply about fostering Western’s excellence. That excellence requires a climate supportive of the very best from every one of us.

These data do allow national benchmarking. We end up looking like everybody else, maybe a percentage point or two better. No solace there though, for Western is not about to be content with being only average.

There is nothing to be embarrassed about in the data per se, in finding that we are a part of a society with resilient sexist, racist, homophobic, and heterocentric forces. The only thing to be embarrassed about when a challenge is documented is to do nothing about it. Just as the hiring data reflect what has to be a campus wide commitment and campus wide action, so too must be efforts to address the campus climate issues. We need the help of everyone on campus in figuring out how to improve and in improving this situation.

Our WWU/Faculty Contract

The new WWU/Faculty contract is another reason people volunteer for why they think it a successful year past. Rightly so.

Why do we feel good about the contract?  The terms of the contract were important.

Good feelings also have something to do with the process: appropriately intense but mutually respectful.  I am deeply appreciative of all, on both sides of the table, whose commitments, hard work, and shared vision made it so.  Thank you all.

The contract is also an affirmation of what faculty and administration together most value when it comes to academic core excellence, clause after clause.

And, finally, there is the fact that, when the predicable external criticism did come in, we did not back down, we did not apologize, we did not look for cover.  We, importantly with our Trustees in the lead, explained the facts of life – that Western is defined by its excellence and we will do what it takes to protect that excellence.

For standing up for excellence, I again say, “thank you all.”

We were heard: encouraging responses from alumni, parents, and students ran 4 to 1, joining us in standing up for quality.  Or, as one well regarded Seattle business leader wrote me: "if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” 

In so many parts of the university, we are getting superhuman efforts for peanuts; that is unfair and unsustainable.  But one example: in our Counseling Center, we lost all but one of our front line counselors to offers with which we could not compete.  This on a campus that, last year, saw three tragic suicides.  Fighting for compensation for all employees will be our number one, top priority in the coming legislative session.

Taking Care of Each Other

I would be remiss if I were not also to acknowledge, looking back, that it was a year that took its emotional toll.  I am thinking first of those three student suicides. 

Even there, though, we committed to fight that scourge. We also took care of each other.  In visible and tangible ways.  You also helped take care of me through so many notes and conversations.  Again, I owe you all a deep and genuine "thank you."

Looking ahead, I do want to announce a new opportunity to help us take good physical care of ourselves, and of each other.

I am sometimes asked why faculty and staff have to pay $105/quarter to use the Wade King Rec Center.  Simple answer is that students, through their fees, are paying what it cost to build and to operate the facility. No state money.  Those who are not students have also to pay their share.

So, here's the deal.  We will be announcing a special Wade King membership for faculty and staff.  It is limited to hours of less heavy student use: 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. every weekday, all day Saturday and Sunday.  On a pilot basis, the university will pick up half the $60/quarter cost.  That means the cost to you will be $30/quarter.

This is, of course, simply an addition to our increasingly robust employee fitness program with classes from yoga to conditioning.  Please do consider participating.  It really can make a difference for you.

Thank you to our student government leaders for stepping forward to accept this use of Wade King.

I must also point out, for we are also all taxpayers, that study after study documents that the small investment we are making will more than pay back the State taxpayers through lower health insurance costs, better performance, and reduced sick days.

Our Reputation

I first noted the most obvious reason for feeling it was a good year: “No More Cuts.”

Sure, we care about dollars. But, respect, reputation, regard matter more. I suspect that therein is a major reason why people feel it was a good year. It may not overstate the situation to say that last year, Western more clearly emerged from its regional cocoon to test its wings as a highly regarded statewide entity.

Trustees reported the statewide “buzz” about Western. I found exactly the same. Faculty and staff have mentioned it too.

Why? It begins, of course, with having a strong university worthy of the “buzz.” That we have.  We have had it for some time, though.  So, what has changed?

Certainly, we took seriously the messages from the “100 Conversations,” one of those being: “You are a hidden gem …STOP HIDING.” You know the resulting branding efforts that now are ever more consistently tying together our messaging.

We took seriously another finding from the same 100 Conversations: “raise your profile and your presence in Seattle.” Our new offices in Two Union Square and the first session of Western summer school at North Seattle Community College certainly did that.  But, we also kept Seattle and the rest of the state in mind in much of what we did.

The theme for our fundraising campaign (Western Stands for Washington) beautifully reinforces the various efforts.  And, it has resonated with so many as the pace of our fundraising, I am proud to report, is exceeding targets.

We have ever more gotten off of our campus to also be where people are in their lives, in their careers, in our state.  One recent example from among so many: Western is partnering with the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in Seattle, to provide mentors, one on one, to adult refugees living in several low-income housing units.

These many efforts to be there for Washington will expand in the year ahead.  And, we have an ambitious goal to unite all of our on- and off-campus efforts, summarized by the phrase “One Western.” To me that means that each of the efforts shares the Western commitment to top quality in whatever it is we chose to do.

It really comes down to this:  As Western is increasingly recognized for its excellence, as Western is increasingly sought out to help address critical needs, as Western is increasingly valued as a statewide "player," we ever more fulfill our mission.  We also feel good about our professional roles.

Once again, a deeply personal "thank you" is due.  From Washington to Western.  From me to you.

Looking Further ahead

Many reasons, then, to feel good about the year concluded.  And, about the matters that emerged for this coming year’s attention:

  • To continue and push our Olympia strategies:
  • On Compensation
  • On the curricular initiatives that build upon our strengths in order to serve Washington: Institute for Energy Studies, Engineering, STEM Teacher Prep, Leveraging the Leadership of Veterans
  • On increasing baccalaureate capacity
  • On fair per-student funding
  • Continue the successes of the fundraising campaign
  • Build out One Western
  • Continue diversity initiatives
  • Seize the opportunities to strengthen campus climate

I will conclude by looking further ahead.  Maybe way ahead.

Over the years, I have spoken about higher education being in a period of major transformation.

I usually begin by reminding us of the history.  That the two epochs of major higher ed transformation – those associated with the Morrill Act that created the land grant universities and those associated with the major higher ed expansion under the GI Bill were actually opposed by the higher education establishments of their time.

I have emphasized the need to continually ask ourselves discomforting questions so that we did not fall prey to the forces that blinded those earlier higher ed establishments.

Today I draw a different corollary:  Periods of major transformation open enormous opportunities for doing well.  And for doing good. 

But, only for those with appropriately aligned values.  And, I think Western’s core values are well aligned for continuing success.

Transformations are very hard to clearly see when in the midst of them.  Is the American higher education landscape being remade?  Consider the following:

  • Major, prestigious universities arenow competing among themselves in offering classes with their best professors to hundreds of thousands. For free.
  • The Khan Academy has built an instructional engine serving the learning requirements of millions, again for free.
  • Most of the world’s science and creative advances will be done beyond our shores and done by those no longer relying upon our campuses as their academic launching pads.
  • The President of the United States uses rising tuition as a campaign issue … and suggests the universities as scapegoat.
  • A national news magazine on its cover, this week, asked:  “Is college a lousy investment?”
  • There is talk that industry and commerce might begin to abandon the baccalaureate degree as the credential for employment and advancement.
  • Student debt loads have reached the point where more and more prospective students and their parents no longer see college as providing a pathway to better futures. 

And, looking at challenges closer to home,

  • Where the long term prospects for the state government's fiscal health, given the current revenue structure, are bleak—whatever may happen to the state's economy.
  • Where baccalaureate degrees are proliferating on 2-year campuses and a new public baccalaureate campus is being developed in our back yard.
  • And, where students in Washington can go to a 2-year and then transfer to the Western Governor's University for a total cost equal one quarter of the current costs to attend Western.

And, heaven forbid, where a Western president is trying to communicate in 140 character tweets.

Amidst the uncertainty, you have heard me confidently argued that we are about high end quality and have nothing to fear – bring on the lower quality competition. 

But, now lay on top of this, example after example of other kinds of enterprises -- automotive manufacture, computer manufacture, steel -- where successful enterprises saw no need to change as they ceded ground to low quality entrants using new technologies to serve markets that the major players cared little about.  Only too late did the major players find there was nothing left for them to do as the competitors moved up the food chain from low quality, low revenue products, having figured out how to apply their emerging technologies to higher and higher end undertakings.  Took decades but, eventually, there was nothing left for the formerly dominant entities.

What does this mean for Western, if anything?  We certainly are not automotive or steel manufacturers and appropriately bristle at industrial analogies. 

I don’t have the answers to what these developments might mean for Western.  I do know there are questions imbedded in these realities that we must fearlessly ask.

I also believe we can glimpse the commitments and values required if we are to flourish through what is likely to be a decade or more of considerable change.

First comes adventurousness, something that jumped out in our earlier research as a defining characteristic of the people attracted to Western: students, faculty, staff, alumni.  Uncertainty and challenges do not scare us.  They engage us.

Next comes something that does not change, that does not transform.  That is to be absolutely clear about what we are at our core: high quality undergraduate education deeply rooted in the ever more relevant liberal arts. 

While matters like core mission do not change, how the mission is to be served should change if the external environment is opening new challenges, threats, opportunities.

Here, another core Western value becomes critical: innovation.  If liberal arts-grounded excellence remains our rudder, relentless innovation will provide the motive power.

There are so many examples of recent innovations.  It is in your blood. I asked each vice president to share one or two examples.  I also asked them to each include at least one failure, for you have heard me preach it before:  if we do not fail now and then, we really are not innovating.

Those are now on the web. They range from an exciting approach to integrating the efforts of three colleges on pressing energy needs to the several faculty this summer who put in place online text books that, we estimate, will save students $10,000 in text book costs.

Times require innovation.  Also, innovative thinking.  A couple of quick examples:

  • In the international arena, traditional universities think in terms of shipping and receiving: sending domestic students abroad, bringing foreign students to campus.  While those remain important, universities of the future realize that, with scholarship, creation, and discovery now occurring worldwide, the only way to remain on the cutting edge is to be immersed in an international intellectual network of relationships permeating all we are about.
  • Diversity goals remain paramount and must be continually improved.  And, I mean by the number, growing the numbers.  No slacking off there.  With that comes the obvious necessity of achieving an exemplary climate.  Leading universities will be those that not only fully reflect the diversity that increasingly enriches our nation but that also fully utilize the strength that, therein, becomes available.  Diversity in the application as well as in the numbers.
  • Consider “online” and residential instruction.  Traditional thinking sees this as a debate about the relative merits of each.  Innovative thinking critically examines all the emerging technologies to identify possible ways to even better serve core commitments, whether they happen to be online or residential, or, as is increasingly the case, one of the myriad hybrids of each.  I have in mind, here, not just emerging technologies that are silicone-based but also critical developments that are social, organizational, or pedagogical in nature.  Here, by the way, is where, in the earlier examples from other industries, the initially dominant players missed the boat: seeing the problem as one of who gets what preferred market instead of thinking through how the new technologies could be innovatively adapted to whatever they most prized as their core missions/markets.

With crystal balls murky, some of our visions of the future will be wrong.  I certainly will have been wrong about some of these things this morning. But, I think it clear what constitutes our rudder: the commitments we have always had to liberal arts-based undergraduate excellence.  Adventurousness assures that we have the will to seize that rudder even as skies threaten.  Relentless innovation is the wind in our sails.  What sets our destination?

The answer is again found in that research on and awareness of who we are.  And, have always been.  We are here to make a difference.  To be the difference.  We are not active minds alone.  We are about changing lives.

That’s what drove the successful institutions during those earlier periods of transformation following the Civil War and following WW II.  Making a better country, making a better world.  And that will continue to be what motivates us.

So, yes, as I have attempted to look out further, perhaps even decades out, there are perplexing, maybe even distressing uncertainties.   But, I reach a reassuring conclusion.  The values and commitments that will be most critical are those that, today, define Western.  That define you.

And, as to that tweet I sent as I was stepping to the podium, it boiled my entire talk down to far fewer than 140 characters.  In fact, I said it in three words:  Thank You All.  Not just for what you did in the year past but also for who you are and what that will mean for Western and all the citizens of this state in decades to come.

Page Updated 11.27.2013