Navigating Beyond Pandemics - Faculty and Staff Convocation Address Fall 2020

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(Watch a video of the 2020 Faculty and Staff Convocation. President Randhawa's remarks begin at 4:25.)

September 17, 2020

Good morning!  Thank you for joining me for this highly unusual Faculty and Staff Convocation, certainly the most unusual in my 30 years in higher education. I am deeply disappointed that we cannot be together today, enjoying the company of colleagues and friends the way we usually do. Today, we are grateful that technology allows us this opportunity and look forward to the time we can get together in person. I want to thank you for making the time to join me in acknowledging the start of a new academic year, and to reflect on where we are as an institution, and as a community bound by a shared mission.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we gather today on the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish peoples, who have lived in the Salish Sea basin, throughout the San Juan Islands, and the North Cascades watershed from time immemorial.  Please join me in expressing our deepest respect and gratitude to our indigenous neighbors, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, for their enduring care and protection of our shared lands and waterways.

Let me next acknowledge how difficult and stressful the last six months have been, and continue to be, for all of us. Many of you or your loved ones have been touched by the health impacts of the coronavirus. Others have family and friends whose lives have been turned upside down by the economic impacts of COVID. We also recognize that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID, while also being deeply impacted by the turmoil set off by the horrific killing of George Floyd. And now, on top of all of this, we have the specter of unprecedented wildfires throughout the West impacting students and their families, and our friends and loved ones. 

Uzma and I want to thank all of you for putting up with these extremely difficult circumstances; for finding a way to continue doing the essential work of teaching and serving our students, even at a distance; and for collaborating with colleagues to keep Western functioning effectively. The work you do is essential, it is valued, and I deeply appreciate the sacrifices you have been making to keep us moving forward.

The coronavirus pandemic totally upended the normal flow of institutional life, in all dimensions, starting in late March 2020, and we had to immediately pivot to “virtual everything.” The Incident Command System structure, and its members did an excellent job in making and executing decisions to ensure the health and safety of our community and to provide educational continuity for students. I am deeply appreciative of our faculty for stepping up to provide remote instruction with very little time to prepare. Likewise, our staff made extraordinary efforts to provide technical support for remote teaching, remote work and delivery of key services to our students.

With no break in the intensity of the health pandemic over the summer, we moved summer session fully remote and we have scaled back our plans for in-person instruction for fall 2020. We plan to offer no more than 10% of our courses in-person in fall, almost exclusively studio and lab-type offerings which require an in-person experience. The GNAC (Greater Northwest Athletic Conference) has cancelled all intercollegiate competition for fall 2020. We will have a substantially reduced occupancy in residence halls, a significant increase in telehealth and tele-counseling services, and most of our staff will continue to work remotely.

During this entire process, we have tried to make the most informed decisions in the best interests of students and the University based on objective health data, advice from our university and community health experts and input from key partners. Did we get it “right”, did we act “fast” enough, or did we provide “effective” communication at every decision juncture? I am sure, not. But when I look at other higher education institutions in the state and beyond, I think we got it right more times than not, and for that I owe a ton of gratitude to you for being our thought partners in the process. Any lapses in judgement and communication in the process rest with me.

Even in spite of the challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, working together we were able to continue to deliver on several of our commitments quite effectively. I am proud to share with you some highlights:

  • At the start of the 2019-20 academic year we welcomed our most diverse incoming class to Western, with almost 27% of the total student body students of color and nearly a third identifying themselves as first-gen students. We also had a very strong recruiting year for the University Honors Program.
  • On the outcome side, we graduated over 3,900 students in 2019-20, again a strong performance even though the latter part of the year was overshadowed by the pandemic.
  • Our focus on student retention and persistence, and all the hard work that goes with it, seems to have resulted in a small but important increase in the first-year retention rate. That’s a good start and continued focus is critical to attain our bolder retention and graduation aspirations.
  • Following a market feasibility report, we requested legislative funding for Western’s programs on the Peninsulas. While the Governor vetoed all other new higher education funding requests because of the economic fallout from the pandemic, we received $886,000 a year to reduce tuition rates for self-support degrees programs on the Peninsulas and to bring them in line with state-funded programs on the main campus. This will result in a near 60% reduction in the annual cost of tuition at Western on the Peninsulas. The state investment will not only help build enrollments, it will also send an important message regarding Western’s commitment to the populations we are serving in that area.
  • Additionally, the legislature gave us the authority to offer the Applied Doctorate in Education (Ed.D.), which is slated to begin in fall 2021. This is an important step in our plans to intentionally increase and expand graduate programs and graduate student enrollments at Western. 
  • We expanded the Provost’s Diversity and Inclusion Hiring Initiative from a pilot of eight positions in 2017-18 to apply to all new faculty positions in 2019-20. Of the 20 faculty hired last year, 41% identified as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority group, and 63% identified as women.
  • Thanks to the collaborative work between Outreach and Continuing Education and the academic colleges, we have initiated a number of new certificate programs, revised Summer course offerings and introduced a new Summer Session scholarship program. Changes in the Summer session have resulted in a 10% year-to-year increase in Summer headcount enrollment and a nearly 17% increase in student FTE.
  • We have raised close to $13 million towards the $20 million goal for the capital campaign for the new Electrical Engineering and Computer Science building, over $10 million for the Student Success fundraising initiative, and, thanks to the efforts of so many faculty, staff and alumni, raised a record $780,000 during Give Day.

It is tempting to let the last few months define our world. And, of course, the health pandemic requires continued time, attention and energy. Yet, in the midst of all the urgencies, I believe a continued focus on our core mission and our long-term goals has helped us deliver some remarkable results for the citizens of our state. That has been due to your hard work, and one of my continuing concerns is the burnout of our faculty and staff in this process. We will need mutual support and the same strength and resiliency we have been exhibiting to ensure that we come out of the pandemic as a purposeful institution, as we surely will in the coming months.

In the middle of the pandemic, we have been challenged by a second, equally critical, and much longer-term crisis. The value crisis following the horrific killings of George Floyd and many other Black people over the past few months has created a call to overturn systemic racism and oppression, once and for all. Perhaps like never before, a plurality of Americans is recognizing that these are not isolated events attributable to racist individuals, but the result of structural injustice embedded in many of our society’s institutions, including law enforcement, healthcare, housing, employment and education.

Our Black students, faculty and staff are understandably angry, frustrated and hurt. I was touched by the many personal messages that were sent to me when this crisis erupted in July and, as I shared with our Black students at the time, I am so sorry that they had to go through yet another recurrence of events causing fear, grief and despair.

As we start another academic year, it is important to position our work on Diversity-Equity-Inclusion as central to our long-term plans and strategies. While we have made meaningful progress in some regards, it is clear that substantial work remains. That work will be among the University’s top priorities this year and for several years to come. The Board of Trustees underscored its commitment to holding us accountable for that work in a resolution affirming Black Lives Matter at their meeting this past June.

In particular, it’s only been a little more than two months since we first outlined our specific commitments to Black students in the year ahead. While I will not repeat all the projects listed on Western’s diversity website, some of the activities we are advancing over the next six months include hiring an African-American Retention Counselor and a Director of Multicultural Student Services; equity and inclusion training for senior administrators and for Academic Affairs leadership, which has already begun; mandatory DEI training for incoming students, in addition to mandatory Title IX training; a commitment to name the new residence hall after Western’s first Black student, Alma Clark Glass, who first attended Western in 1906; a climate survey conducted by the USC Center for Urban Education in fall 2020; and advancing a request for an Ethnic Studies academic institute as part of our decision package “Advancing Equity and Inclusive Success” in the 2021-23 legislative session.

Following recommendations from the 2019-20 work of the President’s Council for Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice, this summer we created a Bias Response Team, which recommends restorative actions and educational responses to bias incidents occurring in the Western community, and we are in the process of establishing a Structural Equity Team, which will undertake a deeper examination of the underlying conditions of bias incidents to inform longer term actions focused on building and sustaining an equitable and just environment.

It is important to recognize that while all communities are susceptible to the virus, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on our most vulnerable communities. There is clear, documented evidence that race, ethnicity, poverty and other social determinants of health impact COVID-19 risks and outcomes. A recent article, “Learning and COVID,” in The Economist (August 29, 2020) cited research at Harvard University that, after the switch to remote learning in March, students in the K-12 system from low-income neighborhoods fell permanently behind on online math courses, while those from richer neighborhoods quickly rebounded due to the resources available to them. The situation is exacerbated by problems of access to computers or internet, lack of counseling and support, and increasing mental health issues among poorer families. Students coming to higher education institutions from under-represented populations are similarly going to be disproportionately impacted by education disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

I am confident that we will recover from the pandemic-driven enrollment drop, currently estimated to be about 10 percent. Two new academic buildings and a new residence hall will add to our long-term capacity to serve students. At the same time, the challenges facing socially disadvantaged populations, as well as increased competition for students, will require that we message and market to both recover enrollments and increase diversity, and that we don’t lose the progress we have made in both areas over the past couple of years. The Western Foundation is working to raise more money specifically for need-based scholarships and student support, as well as scholarships to attract the very best talent to Western. And, our staff in Enrollment Management is trained to make the most of every institutional aid and philanthropic dollar invested in students’ recruitment and retention.

Anticipating a decrease in state support and student enrollments, we took immediate action to reduce expenses, including instituting a hiring freeze, banning all out-of-state travel and restricting in-state travel, and suspending non-essential purchases and expenditures. New one-time funding of about $11.6 million through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, split 50:50 between direct student support and institutional support, and an additional $5.4 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) also appropriated under the CARES Act, have helped to mitigate the impact of the economic downturn on our operations. We have continued to work on various budget scenarios for University operations and self-support units. For the core University operations, we anticipate internal budget reductions for 2020-21 to be around 3 percent, significantly better than what we were projecting even a few weeks back. This will also enable us to avoid instituting mandatory furloughs or layoffs of permanent positions.

The situation with some of the self-support units is more challenging, particularly with Housing and Dining, where there has been a significant loss of revenue. We continue to work with those units to address their financial situation, including restructuring debt service to provide near-term cash flow relief.

For fall planning and beyond, our decision-making has been being done in collaboration with the campus governance structures. Academic planning has involved a number of faculty planning committees convened by Provost Carbajal. The same holds true in student affairs, where Vice President Huskey has consulted with students, staff and faculty on important issues. A consultation group consisting of representation from all governance groups has provided advice and feedback on budget modeling assumptions and exercises since late spring term.

We also recognize that much of the projected drop in state revenue will actualize in the 2021-23 biennium. Our most important priority for the 2021-23 legislative session is to work with the public post-secondary education sector and higher education advocates to minimize negative impacts on state support for Western and higher education, including protecting the investments made in higher education by the Washington State Legislature in the 2019-21 session. In the midst of this uncertainty, including discussions on a second stimulus package from the federal government, it is prudent that we start fiscal planning for 2021-23, a process that we will initiate in October.

While we recognize the state’s budgetary constraints, we are submitting a decision package focused on advancing equity and inclusive success, which we believe is important to advancing key priorities on campus. The package consists of an Ethnic Studies academic institute, filling critical student support services positions for an increasingly diverse student population, and addressing inequity and barriers for graduate teaching assistantships. While not explicitly articulated in our request because of the state’s economic projections, our priorities also include compensation increases for faculty and staff and advancing graduate education in areas of critical state need.

On the capital side, our most important capital priority is to secure funding for the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science building, a commitment made by the legislature in the last session. We are also seeking funding for construction of a Coast Salish Longhouse, predesign funding for a new Student Development/Success Center and for renovating the Environmental Studies building, and ongoing funding for classrooms and labs renovation and minor works preservation.

To summarize, our most obvious responsibility is to navigate Western through the pandemic and its economic aftermath, including a focus on ensuring health and safety, securing budgets and enrollments, and enhancing remote education and support services.

In addition, I want to leave you with two important messages.

First, our students are the seeds of hope for the future of our society and we need to make sure that we nurture them and help them grow to their full potential. To this end, the aspirations we have defined in our strategic plan around advancing inclusive student success and increasing our impact in Washington remain equally relevant – perhaps more so – today, with an even greater need in the state for increased access to educational opportunities, for ensuring equity of outcomes, and for revitalizing our state and region’s economy. It is imperative that we continue to advance these attainment goals.

Second, the Black Lives Matter movement has created a new urgency to examine and change the structural inequities in our university policies and practices, as our students continue to remind us. It is also important to remember that our systems and structures are shaped and influenced by our individual biases, many of them implicit, that classify individuals as good or bad, right or wrong, based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion, among other factors. The famous 13th century Persian poet and mystic, Jalal ad-Din Rumi said:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

As we start a new academic year, I invite each one of us to make a special effort to suspend judgment on good and bad, and embrace everyone as humans, as first and foremost, we are part of one humanity.

I believe in Western’s mission as a public institution. I believe in the values of respect, compassion, kindness, excellence that we have collectively articulated. I believe in you. Even though 2020 has been a year unlike any in our lifetimes, you rose to the challenge and we have done well in difficult circumstances. I know that we will come together to do what is needed to advance Western’s mission and priorities, and to live out our values in creating the humanity and culture being asked of us by our students—because that is the right thing to do.

Thank you. And, please be safe and well.