The Imperative to Change

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

                -Friedrich Nietzsche

As we near the end of our strategic planning process, we are beginning to see themes emerging in our collective answer to the question, “What should Western be and do in the future?” We will complete the strategic planning process by the end of fall 2017. And then, starting in January, we will begin implementing answers to the question, “How will Western achieve the goals and objectives set out in the strategic plan?”

While the ‘how’ question is not trivial, it is important to reflect on the ‘why’ before we transition our focus from planning to implementation. If we have a strong ‘why,’ an unshakable commitment to our purpose, then the ‘how’ will follow over time, even though our external environment may necessitate us to explore different paths to advance our goals. That, of course, is not to say that all paths to the goal are the same—some are more efficient, less costly, and more consistent with other deeply held values than others. But it does mean that getting clear about what matters, the ‘why,’ is important before we begin to consider how we will attain those ends.

In reading through the most recent draft of the strategic plan, and reflecting on my conversations with many here on campus, as well as in the external community, here are the collective ‘whys’ that I see motivating this new strategic plan for Western.

First, because we believe Western has a moral imperative to expand access to higher education, particularly for those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, including first generation and ethnically diverse students. Why is this a moral imperative? Because there is no more powerful economic and social equalizer than higher educational attainment, both for individual graduates and the communities they come from and ultimately settle in. Public higher education was created in the mid-19th century to provide a more equal playing field for those from less privileged backgrounds, and its history is essentially one of increasing inclusion and access to the transformative opportunities it affords. It is past time to expand that circle of inclusion and upward social mobility to economically disadvantaged, ethnically diverse, and first-generation students here at Western. Increasing the graduation and success rates of all students, but especially these students—and ensuring that they feel welcome and valued at Western—is advancing social justice and equity in one of the most concrete and measurable ways possible.

Another way to look at the moral imperative is through the lens of the goals put forward by the Washington Student Achievement Council: that by 2023, 70 percent of adults in Washington ages 25-44 will have at least a two-year degree. Why 70 percent? Because that is the percentage of jobs in Washington in the next decade that will require a two or four-year degree. Not just high-paying jobs; jobs, period. Currently, that number is hovering around 50 percent. Are we going to help our fellow citizens compete for those opportunities, or are we going to continue to import talent from outside the state to meet the state’s workforce needs? Should these opportunities just go to those who are born with financial means and ‘social capital’ to support their success, or will those who come from less advantaged backgrounds get a shot as well? 

Second, we are committed to sustaining and enhancing Western’s distinctive approach to education—grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, emphasizing high-impact learning experiences, faculty-mentored undergraduate research, and fostering skills, knowledge and habits of mind that prepare students to effectively contribute to rapidly evolving societal needs. Now, more than ever, the world needs critical thinkers to step up and make it a better place: people who are problem solvers, comfortable with diverse experiences and beliefs, empathetic and able to collaborate and communicate across cultural lines. Even as we prepare our graduates to succeed in their chosen vocations, our commitment to the liberal arts and sciences means that we value education not only as a means to other goods—responsible citizenship, public service, and leadership, among others—but as an end in itself, as part of a life well lived. Regardless of the career a student pursues with a Western education, we believe that training in the liberal arts and sciences will not only make them better at it, but as a person better for it. 

We also need to make sure that Western more closely reflects the global diversity in which we live and which we seek to advance. Our graduates are going to be part of a global society and their professional careers will require successfully navigating different cultures. We need to cultivate global citizenship in our graduates so they have the curiosity to learn about others’ values and cultures, the wisdom to challenge their own mental models, and the perspectives to make well informed judgements. It also means that Western’s student body includes a healthy mix of international students, so students from our communities have an opportunity to understand and learn the diversity of human values and cultures.

The third and final ‘why’ that motivates a new strategic plan for Western is that we must adapt to a changing world if we are going to avoid becoming irrelevant, elite serving, or a compromised version of ourselves. This is not so much about what we want to impose upon the world in terms of our values and goals, but about what the world is imposing upon us in terms of facts. 

Changing demography means that more of our students will be coming from underrepresented backgrounds and first-generation families, and they will need us to step up to meet them where they are with more support services to ensure their success. Over and apart from the moral imperative to expand access and success rates for these students, Western simply cannot sustain itself with students from more or less privileged backgrounds. Accordingly, the way we measure our success must change as well: it’s not simply about attracting the most prepared, highest achieving students to Western, it’s also about how far we can take all students by the time they graduate. 

Changing political and economic realities mean that we cannot wait on the state legislature to fund our priorities and objectives; if our ‘why’ is critical, we must also look to other means and sources of funding to make them happen. We will continue to work as hard as possible to make the case in Olympia for Western’s priorities and the tremendous ROI that public higher education provides for the people of Washington, and we have legislators who know this and will continue fighting for us as well. But if we are to advance our aspirations on our own schedule—including the goals of social justice and the enhancement of Western’s unique academic excellence—we must be willing to explore new avenues for support and resources.

Finally, changing attitudes about higher education present a challenge and an opportunity for us. Over the last several years there has been a shift in popular perception about the value of higher education, not only among prospective students and parents, but among the public at large. Obviously, there are far more people who pay taxes to support Washington’s four year public institutions than actually attend them. My experience with graduates of Western is that they value their education tremendously.  But for those who don’t (yet) have a direct connection to Western, we must do a better job of demonstrating our value and relevance in their lives and in the future of their communities.

I think the ‘why’ behind our new strategic plan essentially comes down to this: we have a moral imperative to advance social justice by providing greater access and success, especially for traditionally underrepresented students; we must sustain and advance Western’s distinctive educational excellence, grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, for the sake of our students and the positive impact they can have in the world; and, we must adapt to the changing external realities if we are to survive, thrive, and deliver in an authentic way on the two elements above. Our task is not to succeed in advancing one or the other of these dimensions of our ‘why’, but all of them together, without compromise. I have every confidence that we can, and will, do that in the years to come.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.


Dear President Randawa,

Your message about "Why" Western's purpose is important is very timely for me. Just this morning on my way to staff work in the IT division of Academic Affairs, I was thinking about the freshman who first arrived here for the Fall term. Specifically, I was considering the young students who are about to travel home for the holidays ahead. I suspect that many may struggle with the decision to return to campus to resume the mature discipline of university studies and challenges of independence.

I am proud that Western is intent on expanding higher education beyond the traditional populations of socially privileged, to families of our society who have much to offer in thoughtful, creative ways of seeing and communicating. I agree with you that there is a risk of "..becoming irrelevant, elite serving, or a compromised version of ourselves." That is contrary to my understanding of Western's mission and vision for Liberal arts in higher education.

Thank you for your message. I appreciate it.
Lynda B. Baker

Dear Sabah-
Thank you very much for sending your blog post today. We, in Psychology, have the great luck (and responsibility) to be hiring four new faculty members this year. This afternoon we meet to discuss the results of the first search. Since we are hiring this person to work with our school counseling graduate students, the demonstrated ability to work with diverse populations and make systemic change on behalf of under-represented students was one of our required job qualifications. I notice that we are engaging in dozens of searches across the university this year. How many of the searches have, "ability to work with diverse student populations/first generation students" in their required qualifications? More importantly, what evidence are our hiring committees looking for to ensure that chosen finalists meet/exceed this qualification? Over my 14 years here, I have noticed that even when we include this in the required qualifications list, some of the candidates we bring in as finalists are not very strong in skills and experience. I believe that one of the great drivers of our new strategic plan will be new faculty. It might be argued that we can orient them to our WWU and Washington priorities and train them to work effectively with WWU students over the first few years but it is going to be much easier if we hire people who bring the commitment/values/talents with them on their first day. I was on the hiring committee for the Vice President last year. We listened to your charge: find an exceptional person with the ability to lead in student success/retention efforts. We ruled out semi-finalists who were otherwise extremely qualified because they could not articulate how a focus on diversity/advocacy/systemic change/data-driven decision-making would support retention efforts. How can we raise the bar across the university for all our new hires? How can we support faculty hiring teams in seeking candidates who can support our new strategic plan? Thanks for your message today--Diana Gruman

Dr. Randhawa,

Thank you for this important and reaffirming statement of our university's public purpose, and of its commitments to all the citizens of the State of Washington. To work in public higher education is to take up a special role and responsibility in bettering our communities. Few other institutions have the same potential to contribute to building a just, equitable, and inclusive society. I hope we are able to rise to this challenge.

I am deeply appreciative of your profound understanding of Western’s special mission, its strategic situation, and your articulate identification of the resultant challenges to continuing realization of that mission. As illustrated by the comments on this forum, these are challenges I know all who are Western welcome taking on.

Dear Sabah,
Thank you for your blog post. I enjoyed reading your description of the WHY of this work as well as your recognition of the need to hold, without compromise, all three of the dimensions you describe. I am appreciating the creativity and perseverance this will require. And, this reminds me of the hardest part of adapting to complex challenges, - which is the uncertainty that we must collectively go through as we create together new values, behaviors, and ways of being. I have found in my work with students that adaptive learning is much different than more intellectual learning. One of the students in our program with a Master's from Harvard described the difference between intellectual learning and adaptive learning during her struggles early in the program something like this: During my Master's program at Harvard, I worked with tons of ideas, - mostly in my head. It was like I mastered the art of intellectual gymnastics. But now in learning to step into the role of a teacher (which requires fundamentally different values, ways of being, and behaviors than that of a good student - not just new intellectual knowledge) everything feels so much more emotional, risky, and vulnerable. I wonder, then, how we will begin to create containers that require us to engage in experiences that mean we're learning adaptively, - not just intellectually identifying the ideas of why this work matters. How will we work with the reactivity, emotional intensity, and vulnerability that are inherently part of the creative work required to hold the tension between the 3 dimensions you've outlined? An awesome leadership researcher named Ron Heifetz talks about what happens when we try and avoid doing the hard learning adaptive challenges require of us. Work avoidance mechanisms, - as he calls them - feel all too familiar right now: scapegoating others, blaming authority, disengaging, the list goes on and on. I can feel myself struggling with these daily, especially in the midst of such a volatile context. And at the same time, in order to do adaptive learning we can't be too stressed. Heifetz's other idea is that the role of leaders (with or without formal authority) in times when adaptation is necessary is to regulate the pressure. Too much stress and things explode. Too little and we weasel our way right around the challenge of this work. My sense of right now is that there is a lot of stress in the system, -a lot of uncertainty that is hard to be with and instead is turned into clearly delineated, right/wrongness. And yet the sort of creativity required to work with these 3 dimensions you've outlined means we will have to generate possibilities none of us have probably considered or imagined. How will we find it within ourselves to step out of the reactivity fueled by our unstable environment and to step into the unknown together, - into curiosity, into our hearts, into not knowing, into possibility? I welcome that opportunity and am grateful that each one of us is here, at this moment in time, to embark on this together.

Given the contentious climate on many US university campuses lately, I think your emphasis on GLOBAL diversity will be helpful. Taking conversations about diversity and acceptance to the global scale reminds us that our perspective from this place in the US is limited and limiting.

It's heartening that this theme emerged from your strategic planning, as I believe it is missing from many other institutions.

I join those applauding your articulation of these fundamental elements of our mission, and the particular moral responsibilities that go with it, seeing clearly how they integrate. I'm particularly happy to see they way you've articulated the necessity of our liberal arts base in serving this mission, and preparing students to be contributing members of their communities, and useful citizens, having the skills to talk with, work with and solve problems with a wide variety of others.

Thank you for your comments regarding the "why's" of the Strategic Plan that Western is currently developing. The arguments seem on target, particularly the need for WWU to do a better job of promoting its value and relevance to a broad community, including those who will not be accessing its educational programs directly and the need to attract and effectively serve the increasingly diverse communities that can benefit from higher education.
In order to prepare all of its students to meet the State's workforce needs, the University must assure that its academic system adequately educates and trains them to do so. Are students who exit the University with a Western Baccalaureate degree in fact prepared to compete for, and succeed in, entry-level positions in their chosen areas of interest? The fact is that in many disciplines, an undergraduate education, no matter how specialized the major, will not prepare the student adequately. Such disciplines often require the advanced education, and the degree, associated with the Master's.
The University should take a critical look at those disciplines where post-Baccalaureate degrees are needed for students exiting Western to access target positions successfully and assure that appropriate Master's programs are implemented and adequately resourced. The faculty in those disciplines can then redefine the curriculum, identifying what portion of the required knowledge and training base is appropriate for the undergraduate component and what portion is more appropriate to the Master's degree.
Doing so will not only better prepare graduates for their future endeavors, but also strengthen the undergraduate enterprise at Western. Pretending that all education and training necessary to pursue the relevant disciplines can be stuffed into the Baccalaureate degree will likely result either in extending the program beyond four years or placing increasing pressure on its content. The latter could have the unintended consequence of weakening the institution's resolve to assure a liberal arts base to its programs. Rather than weakening the undergraduate enterprise at Western, sound Master's programs in appropriate fields can, in fact, strengthen it by assuring that all students continue to benefit from a liberal arts base.
I learned through our experiences with Shannon Point's diversity programs that expanding access to diverse communities and taking active steps to increase the probability of their success in navigating the educational process are essential elements to an effective effort. However, it is equally important to assure that the end result of the academic experience is a graduate who is well-prepared to pursue her or his chosen professional path. Where that requires access to a Master's graduate program, Western must provide such opportunities with effective programs that are recognized as central to its mission.
Perhaps the point can be summarized by addressing the following question: does, for example, a practicing organic chemist really require three fewer years of formal post-Baccalaureate education than does a practicing lawyer?