2022 State of the University Address Transcript

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Good morning!

Uzma and I welcome you to the new school year. It is a privilege to be with you to report on the state of the University. Thank you for joining us in person or tuning in virtually. 

I joined Western in fall 2016, drawn by its quality educational brand and programs and with aspirations to drive student success to new levels and to help make Western an even greater contributor to the economic and social development of the state and the region. Collectively, we developed and adopted an ambitious strategic plan in 2018-19 that focuses on advancing inclusive student success, increasing impact in the region, and enhancing academic excellence.

Little did we know then that we would be sidetracked by an unprecedented global health pandemic for the past two and a half years. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to introduce changes in how to deliver effectively on our teaching, learning, research, and outreach mission, and pivot our attention from our longer-term plans to the daily urgencies created by the pandemic. However, the COVID-19 crisis has also shown how we can adapt and come together in new and innovative ways to advance the mission of the University and public education at a time when it is needed more than ever. 

Against this backdrop, I begin the 2022-23 academic year with both immense appreciation for what we collectively accomplished over the past year and great optimism about the year ahead.

Academic Year 2021-22 in Review

I want to begin with perhaps my most important message: sincere thanks to all our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends.  You are the reason and inspiration for our success and for our strong position in educating the next generation of leaders and citizens and in changing the lives of students and the communities we serve for the better. Thank you for your hard work, ongoing commitment, and extraordinary service to Western and its mission.

It all begins with a vision, the vision we embraced in 2018-19. I firmly believe that the vision we defined in our strategic plan is even more relevant and pressing today than it was in 2018-19. I also believe that Western has a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to be a catalyst for change in advancing educational opportunities in our state, particularly to populations and geographies traditionally under-represented in higher education.

When we look back at 2021, the pandemic recovery is not the only story.  Far from it!  We have continued to focus and work on our strategic priorities, and we have several achievements to be proud of.  This is a story of the Western community brought together by a sense of shared purpose to serve the people of our state and the nation.  Celebrating our progress and outlining plans to continue our work to advance our strategic priorities is the focus of my remarks today.

Let me start with the most important element of our mission: education. As I have often said, our graduates are the most important contribution we make to society. This past year, nearly 3,700 students graduated from Western. In June, our first fully in-person spring commencement ceremonies after two years of virtual ceremonies was a joyful reaffirmation of the work we do to prepare students for meaningful lives of achievement and positive impact in the world.

Not unlike many educational institutions, our first-year enrollment experienced a double-digit drop in fall 2020. Thanks to the work led by enrollment management and university marketing, first-year enrollment for fall 2021 increased 15% over the previous year and, while we are about a week away from census day, our fall 2022 first-year enrollment stands at 3,237 students, a record for Western, exceeding the previous highest enrollment of 3,147 in fall 2018.  One of the most gratifying outcomes of our recruitment outreach work this year is the fact that a remarkable 80% of our new first-year students completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the Washington state equivalent, compared to about 52% of students nationally and less than 47% for Washington state overall. I am also pleased to report that over the past five years we have continued to increase the diversity of our student body, with students of color representing nearly 29% of the total student body in 2021.

As impressive as the first-year enrollment numbers may be, our goal is not simply to enroll more students. An equally important goal is to ensure that students learn, grow, and succeed at every stage of their education and graduate ready to take on critical problems and make important contributions to their communities.

While the more immediate university emphasis was on recovering enrollment loss and accelerating the return to in-person learning and teaching which was having a disproportionate impact on student retention, we have continued to keep the inclusive student success priority central to our work. 

Dr. Shurla Rogers-Thibou was appointed as the Faculty Director of Academic First-year Programs. This position provides the appropriate faculty oversight of the first-year curriculum and a more sustainable structure to the first-year programs.

The First-year Interest Group (FIG) program remained an important element of our first-year academic programming. Of our 28 FIG seminar courses offered in fall 2021, 20 were face-to-face, and for some students, this was their only face-to-face course last fall providing an important human connection and foundation for their social engagement in university life. Enrollment in the Viking Launch program also made a significant recovery from the low point reached during the height of the pandemic, reaching 137 students in 12 sections. 

A primary focus in first-year programming last year was the expansion of the pilot implementation of our “New Student Experience Seminars” with a total of 11 sections. Like FIGs, these seminar courses are smaller, with class sizes limited to 25 students. These are special topics courses or community-engaged learning experiences that are taught by faculty with a passion for working with first-year students.

An important element of well-being is creating a supportive culture that nurtures the interests and success of our students. Through our accessibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion (ADEI) efforts we have taken important steps and advanced initiatives for creating much-needed support services for students and our community. One of the most important developments is the creation of the Office of Equity last year that brings together two complementary functions, compliance and community education and development. We are pleased to welcome Dr. Jacqueline Hughes from California State University, San Bernardino as Western’s first Chief Diversity Officer and Executive Director of the Office of Equity. 

We can more fully recognize our individual and collective potential if we are able to recognize and celebrate our differences and learn from one another. With a university-level Office of Equity we now have an opportunity to take our ADEI efforts to the next level and provide the much desired and needed alignment and coordination of myriad equity and inclusion initiatives across the university.  I invite each one of you to join me in supporting Dr. Hughes’ work to better coordinate programs across campus and to identify areas where we need to provide new or additional programming. 

Last spring, the Division of Enrollment and Student Services also brought together various accessibility and diversity functions, including Multicultural Student Services, the Disability Access Center, and the LGBTQ+ Western Program, under an ADEI unit led by Litav Langely to provide coordinated, wrap-around services for students of color, students with disabilities, and first-gen students.

And speaking of new leaders, we appointed a seasoned leader in Dr. Brad Johnson, previously the dean for the College of Science and Engineering, as Western’s next Provost and Executive Vice President. We are also pleased to welcome Dr. Teena Gabrielson as the Dean for the College of the Environment; she joins us from the University of Wyoming.

Summarizing a few other important activities, in September 2021 we signed on to become part of an initial cohort of eight U.S. universities to adopt the Okanagan Charter with a commitment to place a culture of health and well-being at the center of all that we do, a perfect complement to our ADEI work.  A Sustainability Council was established in February 2022 to work with the Sustainability Engagement Institute and the campus to refresh the 2017 Sustainability Action Plan and identify immediate achievable priorities. I am also pleased to share with you that last week Western was named one of 12 institutions globally by the U.S. Department of Energy for its first-ever Zero Energy Design Designation.

The Legacy Review Task Force completed its work in taking a reflective look at building and fixtures names, which resulted in the Board of Trustees’ decision in December 2021 to remove the Huxley name from the College of the Environment. And we introduced a strategic budgeting process that reframes how we link budgeting with institutional priorities, work that we will continue to refine in the coming year.

A recent visit to Shannon Point Marine Center reminded me of the impressive research of our faculty, with current work at Shannon Point involving global collaborations and spanning important topics like conservation of marine species, ecology of estuaries, ocean acidification, and impact of metal contamination on sea life.  The wide and varied portfolio of research and creative work of our faculty continues to address critical societal issues to promote economic development, to spur new and innovative thinking, and to improve the human condition and richness of our lives. This work is also critical to undergraduate student engagement in faculty research and for the growth of our graduate programs.

Talking about a different type of a creative enterprise, Uzma and I were recently in Los Angeles where, thanks to Professor Rich Brown, we met with about 30 alums from the College of Fine and Performing Arts. This talented group included production managers, directors, models, and actors engaged in movies, television shows, web productions, and marketing, among other activities. They all talked about the mentoring and inspiration they received from faculty at Western as an important factor in their entrepreneurial and creative endeavors.

Turning attention to our work with the State Legislature, the supplemental legislative session provided funding to expand critical student support services to mitigate impacts of the pandemic, additional support for the RN to BSN Nursing program and funding to establish a Master’s in Nursing, and funding for upgrades to the Cyber Range in Poulsbo. The 2022 supplemental operating budget also reflects the strongest compensation package the University has received since before the Great Recession. The compensation increases are essential to offset inflation and retain our excellent faculty and staff, but more needs to be done, and I am committed to keeping this a top priority.

We continue to expand the University’s physical infrastructure to support our students and academic programs, with the opening of the Interdisciplinary Science Building and Alma Clark Glass Hall residence facility named in honor of the first Black student who attended Western in 1906.  We are now in the design phase for two new projects, both enabled through public-private partnerships: the Kaiser-Borsari Hall that will house Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, and Energy Studies programs, and a Coast Salish-Style Longhouse. 

I deeply appreciate the financial support from our alumni and friends, as well as faculty and staff, that enabled the WWU Foundation to raise more than $17.4 million this past year to support Western students and programs against a $16 million goal, a 72% increase over the previous year, including a 28% increase in the number of major gifts ($25,000 or more). I am particularly appreciative of the Annual Give Day effort that raised a record $1.1 million from over 2,900 donors.

Looking to the 2022-23 Academic Year

As we look to the 2022-23 academic year, I start with the commitment to relentlessly pursue our vision to advance inclusive student success and increase our impact by reaching out to new students, increasing retention and graduation rates, and enhancing the impact of our research, outreach, and engagement programs.

I would, however, be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the complex pre-pandemic issues in our society have only grown worse and more intense, including equity and racial divide issues, growing learning gaps, and enrollment drops among first-gen students and students of color.  The current high inflation rate is creating repercussions for students and their families struggling economically. Throughout the pandemic recovery period, higher education has not been immune to the great resignation wave and labor shortages affecting nearly every industry. We too have struggled with filling many open staff positions impacting effectiveness of our operations and creating workload issues.

There are several priorities from the last two years that we must address with renewed urgency. Continuing focus on enrollments remains crucial for the institution, particularly as competition for students continues to grow.  This will require continually enhancing our outreach and enrollment strategies, complemented by differentiated marketing and branding strategies and increased recruitment and retention scholarships.

Student mental health and well-being will require increased attention in the coming year, as it is an important foundation for student persistence and success.  Various recent studies attest to the mental health crisis in higher education, citing numbers as high as 40% of college students reporting depression and 13% considering suicide within the last 12-month period.  We have provided funding for more mental health counselors through increased legislative and university funding, though the need is still acute.

Excellence and diversity go hand in hand. We will continue to work on increasing diversity among students, faculty, staff, and leadership. Dr. Hughes will engage in a listening tour this fall to assess the state of our ADEI efforts and bring greater alignment of our work across the institution.  The 50th anniversary of Title IX is a stark reminder that despite the progress higher education has made in increasing women’s access to educational and athletics opportunities, we have a long way to go to level the playing field especially for girls and women of color, trans and non-binary people, and people with disabilities.

Advocating for Western priorities in the upcoming legislative session will be an important part of our work over the next several months.  As I have stated previously, employee compensation remains a critical priority for us, and we are committed to working with our peer institutions to advance it.  In addition to compensation, our efforts will focus on advancing the decision packages developed last year as part of the strategic budgeting process, namely on graduate education, student retention and recovery, and maintenance and operations.

I would also like to highlight three additional activities that we will pursue in the academic year:

  • First, there is a significant interest among legislative leadership for Western to expand its programs on the Peninsulas and to start offering four-year degree programs. The legislative interest is consistent with our commitment in the strategic plan to engage students and communities who lack access to quality higher education. The intent is to offer full four-year programs on the Peninsulas for students who want to remain local and attend a 4-year college, even as we continue to enhance our 2+2 programs with our community college partners.  Following endorsement of the concept by the Board of Trustees at its August 2022 meeting, we developed a legislative request for new degree pathways aimed at meeting regional educational and workforce needs, which will be in addition to decision packages completed last spring.
  • Second, our retention rates have been stagnant at around 80% for the past several years. One of our challenges with existing first-year programs has been our ability to scale them to large incoming cohorts, something that we will continue to assess. At the same time, research has shown that high-touch advising in the first two years has a positive impact on student retention and persistence. We intend to revise and strengthen the lower division advising structure, while ensuring effective coordination with discipline-based programmatic advising.
  • Third, I want to highlight a couple of operational activities that are important to advance the academic mission of the university: capital infrastructure planning and budget planning. 

In fall, we will initiate a process for developing a long-term capital plan. The goal is to better understand the longer-term physical infrastructure needs, including needs for new facilities and renovation of existing infrastructure. The 18-month process of strategic visioning for this plan will involve engagement with internal stakeholders to understand needs and outcomes vis-à-vis teaching, research, and student service plans over the next several years. 

Regarding budgets, our revenue picture has been impacted by the enrollment drop during the pandemic. While we remain optimistic about the new recruitment cycles going forward, the drop in tuition revenue from the pandemic years will ripple through the university’s operating budget for the next few years, stressing the overall budget picture.  This means that we need to manage resources more effectively, and with an eye to align any new expenses with institutional priorities. Fortunately, the strategic budgeting process introduced in the last academic year will help us in this effort, and we will continue to enhance it as we collectively learn from our experiences.

In closing, let me reiterate that the state of the university is strong and there is a great deal to be proud of and celebrate, and there are also persistent challenges to overcome. We have learned much as we have dialogued and worked together through the pandemic, and despite all the difficulties of the past two years, we can anticipate new beginnings, new growth, and even new dimensions to our mission. We have never lost sight of the fact that Western Washington University exists for the public good. That commitment is even more important as we look ahead to the important role expected of us as our state and nation recover from the pandemic. I am grateful for your support, engagement, and commitment, and I look forward to all we can accomplish together in the year ahead.