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