2023 State of the University Address Transcript

Published On

Mon, 10/09/2023 - 3:29 pm

Good morning!

Thank you for joining us. Uzma and I extend our warmest greetings and heartfelt welcome to each and every one of you. Whether you have been at Western for decades or have just joined us, it’s an honor to see you here and a pleasure to know all the ways you make our academic community vibrant and dynamic.

Each Fall brings new promise and exciting possibilities. But this year, perhaps even more than most, we should take care not to lose sight of the core values that brought us all to this work while also keeping a clear focus on the landscape before us.

As you may know, prior to coming to Western, I spent my academic career in Pac-12 institutions, and so the recent focus on the Pac-12 conference has been a matter of personal interest to me. The implosion of the Pac-12 athletic conference shows how the prioritization of profit motives and mass entertainment has undermined some of our bedrock values in public higher education. Sadly, the 108 year-old conference is now collapsing due to commercial money-making interests based on a couple of highly visible and lucrative sports. Leaders of educational institutions are increasingly making long-term decisions for their organizations driven by media rights distribution dollars rather than educational values and priorities.

The Pac-12 drama does not paint a very good picture for higher education, coming on the heels of NIL (Name-Image-Likeness) and professional versus amateur issues that have publicly rocked college athletics over the past few years, with state legislatures, the federal government, and courts now all weighing in on the legitimacy and validity of issues brought forward by institutions, the NCAA, and student athletes.

At the same time, we face a broader crisis of confidence in higher education and unfortunately, money driving college sports does not help in building public confidence in the educational mission of our institutions.

Even a glance at the headlines reveals shifting public confidence in higher education. A recently released national report indicates that only a third of Americans now say that they have a lot of confidence in higher education, down from 86% a decade ago, and the number of young adults who consider a college degree very important has dropped to 41% from 74% just a decade ago. Forty-five percent of Gen Z Americans say that a high school diploma is sufficient for financial security, which is a view echoed by many elected officials across the political spectrum and even by many educational leaders as well.

This is despite several studies that clearly indicate that the majority of family wage jobs now and in the near future will require a bachelor’s degree; that graduates with a four-year degree earn significantly more than high school graduates over a lifetime; and, that higher education is the key to creating an educated and informed citizenry crucial to a democracy.

This crumbling of confidence has opened the door to a new round of the so-called culture wars, with politicians and media pundits distorting and caricaturizing what we do for their own short-sighted and often disingenuous purposes. We haven’t yet found ourselves facing the predicament that our colleagues in places like Florida and Texas do, but we know about the interconnectedness of the higher education ecosystem and we would be foolish not to learn from their experiences. Add to that the new practical and moral challenges posed by advances in Artificial Intelligence and the ongoing problem of funding and affordability, and it’s clear that we have some important issues to navigate for higher education and for Western.

And while these conditions are challenging and ever evolving, they also have renewed my pride in being with you here at Western, where we have remained true to our fundamental mission of public education and public service. Seven years into my time here, I am so proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish together. From our shared focus on inclusive student success to the dedicated teaching and scholarship of our incredible faculty; from our growing impact on the State of Washington as we continue to offer degree programs needed by regional industry and employers, to expanding our presence in underserved regions of the State like the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas—together we continue to increase Western’s impact on the communities and the world around us. It remains clear to me that Western is and will continue to be the leading public comprehensive university, not only in the State of Washington, but in the broader region.

Before I talk about some of the specific challenges facing us this year, I’d like to pause to celebrate our most valuable resource—all of you. Thank you all for your dedication to Western and our mission. Your contributions to the success of our students and to the mission of Western reach far and wide. Wherever and however you are engaged at Western, thank you for your service and dedication.

It is a testament to Western’s strength and your hard work that we have done better than most of our peer institutions in recovering from the pandemic enrollment drop, and I’d like to especially thank our admissions, financial aid, marketing, and student outreach colleagues for their incredible efforts these past few years. We are still short of pre-pandemic numbers in terms of total enrollment, but last fall we welcomed Western’s biggest first year class ever. And while we still await census numbers, I am pleased to say that the projected numbers for this fall are looking just as good.

But in the midst of this good news, we need to pay close attention to the fact that our numbers of first-generation students and Pell-eligible students, those students hit the hardest by the pandemic, have dropped. We need to more intentionally reach out and recruit students who have been traditionally under-represented in higher education. This means getting off-campus and into high schools, connecting with students face to face, making it as easy as possible for them to come to Western by eliminating as many barriers as we can, and helping them make a college education affordable and debt-free.

The primary reason why many people are losing faith in the value of higher education is not the education itself, but the crippling debt that it often comes with. The Washington College Grant is the best financial aid system in the country, but far too many of our students and families don’t know it exists or how to access it. We need to do everything we can to connect students to the financial resources that can make a Western education possible for them, which is why our primary request to the Legislature this year is for funding to increase our outreach to high schools, especially Title 1 schools that support students from low-income backgrounds.

Increased access is also the focus of our College in the High School pilot this fall. Thanks to the efforts of higher education advocates across the state, College in the High School is now free for all high school students in Washington. So now we need to do everything we can to make high quality college courses available to high school students. Nothing helps a student gain confidence in their ability to succeed in higher education than experiencing early academic success, and I am deeply appreciative of the faculty who have stepped up and offered to participate in the “Western in the High School” program. Here again, our focus will be on Title 1 schools and students from low-income backgrounds.

Another key initiative that we have undertaken to increase access to four-year education in our state is the expansion of Western on the Peninsulas. We continue to work with our partners at Olympic and Peninsula Colleges to bring high-quality four-year programs to the underserved citizens on the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas. We received funding from the Legislature last year to add to our academic programs, as well as to establish the operation and outreach infrastructure required for student recruitment and support. This work is more complex as we need to work in sync with our community college partners, who have experienced significant enrollment challenges even before the global pandemic. We remain committed to working with them and to leading the way to create educational opportunities for citizens of Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas.

Getting students to Western is only the first part of our commitment as a public higher education institution. Our next responsibility is ensuring the retention and success of students who join us here at Western. The pandemic set us back on our goals to increase retention and graduation rates, and we must intentionally work to correct that. In 2022, we introduced a mandatory advising pilot that reached almost 30% of our first-year entering class. Based on the results of this and other retention efforts, we are committed to further realigning our advising and retention services within Academic Affairs and Enrollment and Student Services this year for lower division students. We received funding from the Legislature last year to lower class sizes in first-year mathematics and writing courses to help with the learning gap for students entering our programs. At the same time, Provost Johnson is also assessing student loss in the junior and senior years, so we can start addressing retention issues in the upper division programs as well.

The success of our students is central to our mission, and again, I’d like to thank all of you, faculty and staff, for your ongoing dedication to teaching and supporting the students we serve.

Another huge part of retaining students is ensuring that they develop a sense of community and belonging at Western. Our Chief Diversity Officer, Jacqueline Hughes, held community listening sessions throughout the last academic year. As you will hear from Dr. Hughes in the next few days, we learned about lived experiences of our community members on several important dimensions, including their sense of belonging and physical and psychological safety, as well as their perspectives on coordination of our ADEI work across the institution. We will build on the lessons we have learned from Dr. Hughes’ conversations, and we will continue to prioritize the health and well-being of our community members, taking necessary actions to build a community and campus environment that is safe and inclusive for all. Our commitment to accessibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion will remain unwavering, and we will continue to foster an environment where every voice is heard and valued. Our path moving forward must be community-based and must be expansive and inclusive, engaging all groups within our community.

This year we will also engage in developing a blueprint for Outreach and Continuing Education that is grounded in the vision of providing educational opportunities to the one-million-plus Washingtonians who went to college, but due to life circumstances, failed to complete a degree. This will require experimenting with different modalities to deliver educational opportunities to this population base while remaining committed to quality as a hallmark of a Western degree.

A critical component of Western’s commitment to academic excellence is faculty research and the engagement of undergraduate and graduate students in that research. Faculty research is vitally important to our local communities and the broader society. This work also brings to Western students with a passion for the environment, climate change, innovation, health, and equity.

Two recent announcements demonstrate Western’s faculty engagement in these critical issues and their reach in partnering with faculty and researchers nationally: we are a regional hub for UMass Amherst’s Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science, a five-year $30 million initiative funded by the National Science Foundation, and we are part of a multi-institution, $15 million grant funded by the national earthquake research center to study the Cascadia subduction zone and bolster earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, also funded by the NSF.

We need to continue to enhance the environment that supports faculty in exploring such multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional initiatives, and also find ways to expand graduate programs to support faculty research. The second key component of our state budget request in the upcoming supplemental legislative session is funding to start a new masters-level program in Electrical and Computer Engineering that will leverage the recent expansion of our undergraduate program in that area, as well as the construction of Kaiser-Borsari Hall, our new academic building that will be dedicated to computer science and electrical and computer engineering.

The success of our faculty is, of course, not limited to the sciences. I had the distinct pleasure of reading Dr. Jane Wong’s Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City over the summer. Dr. Wong’s memoir is receiving rave reviews from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other publications. Her work is but one example of the creative talent of our faculty in the humanities, fine and performing arts, and education.

With all the external pressures facing institutions of higher education, it is sometimes easy to forget that faculty are the backbone of any university. Our faculty are the ones who carry out our core mission of educating students, creating knowledge and forming engaged citizens. Thank you for everything you do.

As we start a new academic year, we find ourselves in an environment where we are still navigating challenges and uncertainties in the aftermath of a global pandemic and amid geopolitical and economic shifts. I appreciate everyone’s work to implement the 3% adjustment in the base operating budget for FY2023-24. While not without challenges, this change will enable us to better align expenditures with revenues and maintain a reasonable institutional fund balance to address unforeseen urgencies, like the pandemic. More importantly, the resilience and adaptability that we have demonstrated as a community over the past few years has been nothing short of inspiring. We have learned the importance of compromise, innovation, and supporting one another during difficult times. This gives me immense confidence in our resiliency as an institution, and in our ability to be adaptable to change while simultaneously enhancing our campuses and providing meaningful connections in the communities we share.

I am appreciative of the support of our legislative partners for funding our key operating and capital priorities in the 2023 session, as well as increasing the state’s contribution to employees’ compensation increases. As a public institution, we take seriously our responsibility for increasing access and success for Washingtonians, and state support is critical in this endeavor.

I would be remiss if I did not comment on the importance of philanthropy in helping advance our strategic priorities. Scholarships through fundraising have been integral to recruiting two of the largest classes to Western in fall ’22 and ’23. We also received several generous gifts over the last year that have been critical to supporting and elevating our academic programs. I single out three gifts in particular: a gift to create the Salish Sea Recording Studio, a remarkable addition to Fairhaven College and the university; a gift to create a new financial literacy program for all Western students that will be offered through the College of Business and Economics; and a gift to establish an endowment that will support expansion of Western’s graduate program in Geology. Our faculty, department chairs, and college deans played an essential role in securing these gifts by telling Western’s story so well, and looking ahead, that role is going to be even more important as we prepare for a comprehensive fundraising campaign.

I’ll conclude by repeating that we have a lot to be proud of and a lot still to do, especially when it comes to providing access to every Washington student who wants a college education. And, in the context of a national debate about the value of public higher education that is often superficial and misguided, I want to re-emphasize our firm commitment to the value of a liberal arts education. We remain committed to the public education mission of Western. And we also remain committed to the academic excellence that Western is known for. Making public higher education more accessible will mean nothing if we don’t also ensure that our students have access to the best education we can give them. We owe it to our students and ourselves to create an environment where people can speak without fear, disagree without disrespect or censure, and remain open to new ideas and perspectives. In a world where civil discourse is increasingly rare and inquiry often goes no further than a Google search, we must continue to show our students the value of critical thinking and the ability to engage in respectful dialogue.

In closing, I want to express my sincere gratitude to each and every one of you for being a part of the Western Washington University family. As we embark on this new academic year, let us remember that we are not just individuals; we are a community bound by a shared purpose and a common pursuit of excellence. I look forward to the incredible journey that lies ahead, and I am excited to see the achievements, innovations, and growth that will mark this academic year.

Thank you.