Opening Convocation Address to Faculty & Staff Fall 2018

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(Watch a video of the 2018 Opening Convocation CeremonyPresident Randhawa's remarks begin at 24:30.)

Good morning and welcome to the start of Western’s 125th academic year.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered on the ancestral homelands of Indigenous Peoples who have lived in the Salish Sea basin and the North Cascades watershed from time immemorial, in particular the Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Tribe. Please join me in expressing our deepest respect for our indigenous neighbors, and gratitude for their enduring stewardship of our shared lands and waterways.

As we look forward to the new academic year, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on our successes this past year. Each of you has a right to be very proud of your work. As I often say, the most important contribution we make to society is our graduates. Last year, nearly 3,825 students graduated from Western. Our determination to be one of the best public universities is reflected in the exceptional work that our faculty do every day to educate and mentor our students and the equally dedicated work of our staff for supporting the educational enterprise and for making Western a wonderful place to learn and work. I appreciate Western’s focus on educational quality and on the holistic development of students in preparing them for public service and active participation in a democratic society. I am proud of our shared commitment to continually enhancing quality and excellence in all dimensions of our mission: teaching and learning; research, scholarship and creative activity; and community impact and engagement, as so clearly articulated in the recently completed strategic plan.

The University’s Strategic Plan was approved by the Board of Trustees in April 2018. Led by a Strategic Planning Committee, the strategic plan is a result of an extensive campus-wide process, which started in December 2016 and included collecting, assimilating and synthesizing input received from faculty, staff, students, and several external constituent groups. The plan is informed by the significant challenges facing higher education across the country and by the Washington Student Achievement Council’s Roadmap Report on education attainment goals. The strategic plan reaffirms our commitment to higher education as a public good that should be accessible to all qualified students. The work included a revision of our mission and vision statements to better reflect our aspirations. It identified four goals to advance Western:

  1. Provide a transformative education grounded in the liberal arts and sciences and based in innovative scholarship, research, and creative activity.
  2. Advance a deeper understanding of, and engagement with, place.
  3. Foster a caring and supportive environment where all members are respected and treated fairly.
  4. Pursue justice and equity in polices, practices, and impacts.

Additionally, the plan identifies three core themes, defined as manifestations of fundamental aspects of Western’s mission: advancing inclusive success, increasing Washington impact, and enhancing academic excellence. The strategic plan will guide us over the next several years and hold us accountable to measurable outcomes.

Implementing the strategic plan is an ongoing process, since the University exists in, and must respond to a dynamic environment every day. There is no “pause button” that allows us to step completely out of the stream of events to figure out what to do next. As such, we need to continuously enhance our teaching and learning environment and advance initiatives that emerge from our annual budgeting and assessment processes and our biennial legislative planning cycles, while securing resources to seed new and innovative directions to help us make progress on critical goals and metrics.

Before I share my thoughts about the future, I want to return to the three overarching themes and use them as a scaffold to outline some of the steps we took last year to implement our strategic plan.


Advancing Inclusive Success

Our goal is to increase our retention and graduation rates for all students, and to eliminate achievement gaps for underrepresented students. 

On the academic side, we have already increased investments into programs that have proven effective in student retention including the Freshman Interest Groups and Viking Launch. We have more than 550 students enrolled in the First-year Interest Group (FIG) program in the new academic year. In the College of Science and Engineering, the $1 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant, has further enabled us to expand retention efforts. And, just a month ago, the National Science Foundation awarded over $950,000 for a project entitled, “Becoming engaged scholars: Success programs for recruitment and retention in engineering” led by Drs. Klein, Brobst, Al-Qudah, Chawla and VanderStaay, which further complements our retention efforts.

Funding to expand the Viking Launch program has increased student participation from 80 to 155 students. This is an early-fall start program for new students that provides immersive, field and lab-based classes in several areas before fall term formally begins.

We appointed a Director of First Year Math Instruction, to enhance instruction and learning in lower level math courses, which has been identified as one of the biggest impediments to academic success for our students. We are now in the second year of using a new math placement and assessment system for first-year students, which helps us more quickly and accurately identify appropriate first-year math placement.

We will continue to assess and evaluate all of these first-year student and other retention initiatives, so we can drop the ones that are not effectively advancing student success, while expanding those that have a positive impact.

Student wellness and student support activities are foundational for student success as well, and this year we made additional investments within the division of Enrollment and Student Services. As a first step in the process we have allocated $400,000 in FY19 to bridge gaps in critical areas, including mental health counseling, disability services and academic support coordination. Recognizing that our DisAbility Resources Office has long been inadequate to support the more than 800 students here at Western who may have service needs, a new center for DisAbility Resources and Veterans Services is under construction on the first floor of Wilson Library, scheduled to open next spring to provide additional capacity. 

At the core of advancing inclusive success is ensuring that any person from any background can succeed here. While retention and graduation numbers provide the incontrovertible measure of whether we are advancing our goals, we all know that we are not educating numbers, but human beings, with complex, distinctive identities who need to feel welcome and supported in order to flourish both in and out of the classroom.

As we aim to increase the diversity of our student body, we need to ensure that the people our students see at the front of our classrooms, in our offices, and in leadership positions increasingly reflect their experiences and aspirations.  

Last year, the Provost launched a faculty Diversity and Inclusion Hiring Initiative, initially for eight new tenure-track faculty positions authorized by the University. Based on successful models at other institutions, the Initiative recognizes the need to hire and advance faculty who have demonstrated experience cultivating diverse and inclusive classroom and departmental environments. The Initiative includes an advocate training program for search committee chairs, guidelines on developing job descriptions, and increased consultation with the Equal Opportunity Office during the search process. The pilot’s results are encouraging: Of eight faculty hired, 37.5% identified as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority, and 25% were women. However, we need to demonstrate sustained effort in increasing faculty diversity at Western and I would like to see these kinds of hiring practices become more widespread across our academic enterprise. 

Some of the most challenging work we have ahead of us as a campus is related to campus climate and culture. In January 2018, I appointed a Gender Equity Commission and a Council on Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice. The Gender Equity Commission’s initial focus has been in three areas: barriers to leadership and advancement for women, onboarding and retention of women, and an exploration of the gender equity landscape at Western. The Council on Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice is focused on identifying a short list of problems and barriers which prevent the University from meeting its obligations to inclusion and justice, and potential solutions which will generate measurable, near-term outcomes. Both groups will present recommendations by December 2018, at the completion of their inaugural years.

As you saw earlier in the awards ceremony, L.K. Langley has been doing outstanding work both with the Equal Opportunity Office and through their volunteer work with the community. We look forward to supporting Langley’s work as the new LGBTQ+ Director, a very important role for advancing Western. We are also hiring for another important leadership position for Western’s commitment to inclusion, the Executive Director of American Indian/Alaska Native/First Nations Relations and Tribal Liaison. The job posting has generated an impressive 78 applications thus far, and we expect on campus interviews with candidates in the fall term. 

We continue to monitor and address issues of safety to ensure that we provide a safe and supportive educational environment for all our students. The future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program remains uncertain, though we will continue to advocate for preserving DACA and continue to provide undocumented students attending Western the same educational and development opportunities as all other students.

During the last academic year, there were multiple instances of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim activity on campus and, in particular, there were several incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism in the Jewish Studies Collection of the Library that caused great distress for our entire community. I was proud to see so many members of our campus and Bellingham residents come together at the re-shelving ceremony in April, united in their opposition to all forms of hate and bigotry targeted at marginalized groups. We will  continue to emphasize that fostering a caring and supportive environment where all members are respected and treated fairly is absolutely central to our values and our practices.


Increasing Washington Impact

One of the key elements to increasing our impact in Washington is increasing access to our programs on the main campus and at our off-campus locations. A coordinated effort by the Office of Admissions and University Relations and Marketing enabled us to welcome our largest and most diverse incoming class in fall 2017, a total of 3,114 freshmen and 1,218 transfer students, with 30.1 percent of new freshmen and 45.6 percent of transfer students being first in their families to attend college, and 27.8 percent of the incoming freshmen class constituting students of color. Overall, the fall 2017 enrollment for Western was 15,915 students, a 2.19 percent increase over fall of the previous year. We are having another strong recruitment year; we expect the incoming cohort in fall 2018 to be about the same size as last year, and we will welcome the largest Honors program cohort in university history, comprising about 170 students, with qualified applications far exceeding our current capacity.

Increasing impact also requires that we prepare our students for a rapidly changing global environment. As you know, we entered into a partnership with Study Group as a partner to increase the number of international students over the next several years. We expect the results of this effort to start showing dividends in fall 2019. The partnership will not only help us increase international student enrollment, it will also help us diversify the campus community, culturally and socially. At the same time, the Provost is working on an initiative to substantially increase the number of our students who have an opportunity to participate in an education-abroad program.

Our ability to extend our impact in Washington was enhanced by the state’s supplemental legislative budget session, which resulted in funding for a new undergraduate degree in Marine Sciences and an undergraduate degree in Early Childhood Development to be delivered in partnership with Olympic Community College at Western on the Peninsulas. Additionally, the Legislature funded a feasibility study for Western to assess education needs on Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas. The study, to be completed this fall, will help us ascertain how to meet the state’s educational attainment goals in one of its most underserved areas, by meeting people where they are geographically, and in their lives as professionals, parents, and community members. 


Enhancing Academic Excellence

Continuing to build our faculty base is critical to our academic excellence and to providing increased access to high-demand majors with capacity constraints. The Provost authorized eight new tenure-track faculty positions in 2017-18 in the colleges of Science and Engineering, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Huxley College of the Environment to address backlog issues in foundational courses, and he will be  authorizing at a minimum the same number of faculty positions for 2018-19. Our goal in building faculty is to both address the high demand areas and support the liberal arts core that always has been and will be essential to our identity and mission.

Retention of outstanding faculty and staff is equally critical to our continued success. We provided a compensation increase of over 4 percent for faculty and staff for the new fiscal year, continuing our commitment to work with faculty and staff to offer competitive compensation for recruiting and retaining talent, which is central to advancing our aspirations.

We are working to address laboratory access issues in chemistry and biology. Work is underway to create additional capacity in chemistry labs in Morse Hall and to complete the anatomy and physiology labs in Carver (left undone because of lack of funding during the renovation). We expect this work to be completed in 2019 and for it to provide much-needed lab spaces as we work to secure funding for a new interdisciplinary science building in the upcoming legislative session.

With input from campus, we have put together a strong set of decision packages (click here to see the full recommendations on the Budget Forum) for the 2019-21 legislative session which includes funding requests for competitive compensation, expanding capacity for pre-healthcare, a BS degree in energy science & technology, expansion of electrical engineering, increasing the number of teachers in Washington state, and support for career-connected learning, all of which focus on advancing the goals of the Washington Student Achievement Council. Moving those packages forward and seeking funding for a new interdisciplinary science building will be central to our legislative efforts in the new academic year.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the research and creative work of our faculty, so critical to student learning, to innovation and creativity, and to the economic and social development of local and regional communities. Our faculty does amazing work, on topics that span arts and humanities, earth system sciences, human health, and science and technology. I want to share with you a sampling of the topics that recent faculty activities have focused on: the works of Ella Higginson, theatre devising, genocidal atrocities across Africa, the impact of global warming on world’s oceans, ecological research in the Gulf of Alaska, biodiversity in forest carbon storage, the neurobiology of  Huntington’s disease, silk use for fighting cancer, sustainable home designs, and solar technology. And, what makes Western’s faculty research one of our great strengths, is their engagement of our students, both undergraduates and Masters, in their work and the publications and other activities that result from it.

Finally, on fundraising, we raised a total of $21 million in 2017-18, compared to $15.7 million in 2016-17, and the total endowment managed by the Western Foundation now stands at $86.2 million, compared to $77.9 the previous year. Total assets topped $100 million, a true milestone. The most substantial and inspiring gift during 2017-18 was Sculpture Woods on Lummi Island, which includes the bronze sculpture collection from artist Ann Morris, her 14.5-acre wooded retreat, and a $900,000 endowment to maintain and preserve the property. In addition, the Foundation helped provide nearly $2.5 million dollars in scholarship support to our Western students throughout the last academic year.

There is a lot to be proud of as we reflect on the work we collectively accomplished last year. At the same time, we have a long journey ahead of us, because we aspire to uncompromising excellence when it comes to delivering on student success, equity and justice.

So, I would now like to turn our attention to the future, to our goals and challenges as we work to advance our aspirations. Let me start with a recent activity that is on my mind.

During the August 2018 commencement, while on stage handing out diplomas, I couldn't’t help but notice how few students of color crossed the stage. For a campus that prides itself on social justice and diversity and inclusivity, we have a long way to go to create an environment that actualizes inclusive excellence—both to attract more underrepresented students and to ensure their success once they are on campus. Academic excellence and inclusive success go hand in hand—and we must see them as mutually inclusive if we are going to achieve our goals. Accordingly, we need to change our perspective on what success means: that it isn’t just about attracting the most prepared, highest achieving students to Western, but how far we can take each and every one of our students between the time they come to us and their graduation.

The second issue that keeps me up at night is how to make substantive progress on the goals and themes of our strategic plan. That’s because the strategic plan you have helped create is ambitious, and it will require us to embrace and create real change in many ways across the institution. The truth is, it is more difficult by an order of magnitude to go from good to great, than it is to go from mediocre to good. For example, in the strategic plan, we aspire to raise our current six-year graduation rate of about 70%, which is good, to be among the best, 75-80%. That is going to be much more difficult than it would be to go from the national average of 58% to where we are today. The “low hanging fruit” has long ago been harvested, and what these increasingly difficult incremental gains require is not simply more investment and effort along the same lines—though scaling existing successful approaches is important—but also new ideas and strategies. We simply will not get there by relying on ‘more of the same’, especially in a dynamic environment where our students and the external circumstances are rapidly changing.

Strategic planning is about much more than a document that lists, goals, objectives, themes, and metrics. If that is all that we concentrate on, we have lost the essence of the strategic plan and the strategic planning process. I believe that the strategic plan provides a framework to promote creativity and experimentation in what we do, while ensuring that we collectively embrace a set of common values, a common mission and a common set of priorities to which we hold ourselves accountable. The strategic plan and its implementation are about creating an institutional culture in which we are open to new opportunities and new possibilities, where each one of us extends ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and where we advance the notion of servant leadership—of providing the best education and service to advance a cause that is greater than ourselves.

Advancing goals like access and success also requires a sense of urgency. This isn’t an urgent crisis in a traditional sense; it is not hastened by a state budget being slashed or a precipitous drop in enrollments. It is rather an urgency of opportunities, which in many ways is more important and also more difficult to create and sustain. You have heard me talk before about the moral imperative that underlies our strategic plan. The moral imperative to expand access and increase success, particularly for those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. The moral imperative to help the people of Washington State, who support our institution, compete for their share of the tremendous economic opportunities in our region and globally. Quite simply, we have a moral imperative that requires a sense of collective urgency, because we have the talent, brainpower, and skills to change people’s lives and lift up communities for the better.

I am not here today to announce my 30-point plan for strategic plan implementation. As an institution committed to shared governance, composed of more than 2,000 faculty and staff with deep expertise and experience across the institution—and over 16,000 students—we will figure those things out together, and do a far better job than any one person or small group of people could. What I do want to emphasize is that progress will require a passionate and relentless focus on programs and strategies that advance inclusive success, Washington impact and academic excellence, even at times when circumstances are difficult. It will require respect for individual talent and differences and how we bring individual talent together to advance the greater good. Cognitive diversity is central to creativity and innovation. As Andrew Grove states in Only the Paranoid Survive, “powerful, adaptive organizations have a culture that combines debate and determined march.”

From the start of our strategic planning process two years ago I spoke of the need for a resource modeling process to accompany the strategic planning process. That will begin this fall with the appointment of a working group that will include representation from faculty, staff, and students. While I will leave the details for a later communication, let me start today by giving you a sense of resource modeling. First, what it is not: It is not a plan, a budget model, or even a set of strategies for revenue or expenditure allocation. Rather, it is an attempt to model and quantify at the institutional level what is called “the prosperity gap”—the difference between our current funding levels and the funding it will take to advance our aspirations. In other words, to model and quantify what will it take to adequately fund our existing operations and services, and on top of that, what more will it take to advance the aspirations and priorities defined in our new strategic plan. The intent is not to seek precise answers. Rather, what we want to generate are “ballpark figures” so that we can in turn think about potential sources for funding those priorities. While some will be appropriate for legislative requests many will not be, and we will have to be creative in our thinking about how else to fund these priorities. 


Before I close, I want to talk about something that is extremely important to me, and to Western. I left this to the last primarily because of the importance of this topic to make sure it does not get lost in my other comments.

Western’s most important responsibility is to provide a safe campus environment, an environment free from sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination. I appreciate the professionals who have worked hard in addressing this complex area over the past year. And yet it is clear that Western’s response to the problem of sexual violence needs to be rethought and reorganized, and significantly improved. I have spoken with Western students, faculty, and staff who experience a total lack of confidence in Western’s response to sexual misconduct. My fear is not that the lack of confidence is justified, but that survivors of sexual misconduct might stop coming forward because they have no faith in the process and the accountability that follows from it. 

In order to begin restoring that confidence, Western will be taking several steps this year to reorganize and enhance our efforts around response and prevention of sexual misconduct. First, we are restructuring Title IX investigations and reportage, creating a separate Title IX Office which will report directly to the President. The Title IX Office will focus exclusively and comprehensively on sexual violence investigations and coordination and oversight of our institutional policies, processes and prevention efforts.  I believe we need a Title IX Office, separate from the Office of Equal Opportunity and Employment Diversity, because of the quantity, complexity, and nuance of the work in both of these areas, and that our students, faculty, and staff—as well as our institutional goals—will be better served. We will immediately commence a national search for a Title IX Coordinator to direct this office.

Last spring, I asked our Director of Internal Audit to review how cases of sexual violence and sexual misconduct have been handled in the past, as well as how we have handled accountability and consequences for proven violations. The recommendations from the report, which will be available next week, center around ensuring that institutional procedures and practices provide for prompt time frames for resolution of complaints, providing adequate staffing focused on sexual misconduct cases, ensuring adequate communication on the outcome of complaints to all parties concerned, and ensuring clear communication between the Office of Student Life and the Equal Opportunity Office.

Per the recommendations of the Internal Audit report, we will complete revision of Western’s Discrimination Complaint Procedure, no later than January 2019, to provide clear, reasonable and justifiable time frames for prompt reviews and clear guidelines on communication, including notification to complainants on outcomes of the investigation. To improve coordination between the Office of Student Life and Equal Opportunity Office and improve accountability, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Melynda Huskey is being designated as a Deputy Title IX Coordinator, leading and coordinating the student disciplinary function that is the purview of the Office of Student Life.

Third, we are enhancing our prevention and education efforts. Currently, Western requires all new students, including freshmen, transfer, and graduate students, to complete a mandatory sexual assault prevention training called HAVEN. This year we will be instituting a second HAVEN training for all students at the end of their second or beginning of their third year at Western. Prevention and Wellness Services, with the assistance of Peer Health Educators, is developing new skills- and scenario-based training for students about communication and consent.

I believe the administrative changes and strategies that we are implementing this year will help us more effectively address sexual misconduct. This fall I will invite the leadership of the faculty, staff, and student governance groups to talk with me about how we can continue to address sexual misconduct and improve our response, and better overcome the obstacles to our progress. The path to a truly safe campus depends not only on the strategies and processes we put in place, but fostering a culture in which every member of the community takes personal responsibility to contribute to the solution.

I have been asked on several occasions: What will Western look like in the future?

My simple answer is “I don’t know.” What I do know is this:

One, advancing inclusive success is critical for our society and the people we serve, and for increasing our impact in our state and region. This is central to our mission as a public institution. As John McCain said, “Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause greater than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”

Two, this will require a lot of work and a can-do attitude. We need to trust our people and we need to trust the process. Not blindly, not indefinitely, but long enough and sincerely enough to see what results so that we have something to assess and respond to. That includes continuous engagement of the entire campus community to generate ideas and check against individual biases, and engagement from outside the system to ensure that we are not insulating ourselves from the communities we are trying to serve.

Three, we will, and we should, preserve the values that are core to Western: integrity, responsibility, and accountability; commitment to equity and justice, and respect for the rights and dignity of others; commitment to student success; and commitment to the pursuit of excellence. However, the culture at Western will evolve and change, as it should, if we are going to build a more diverse and inclusive campus.

And, finally, if we envision the future as a universe of possibilities and continue to pursue a vision that is positively impactful for society and higher than any of us, I am confident that we will end up in a better place on the other side of the journey.

Thank you.