Opening Convocation Address to WWU Faculty & Staff 2017

September 20, 2017

 

Thank you, Allison, for your kind introduction. It has been an honor to work with you, last year’s Senate President Kristen Larson, and the Faculty Senate leadership during my first year as Western president. The Faculty Senate, and the more than 900 faculty it represents, are at the center of our shared aspirations for Western Washington University. I want to thank you—our faculty, for your work to educate our students and help them realize their greatest potential.

I am pleased to be joined by leaders with whom I serve the university: Trustees Sharpe, Meyer and Truemper, and our outstanding deans and vice presidents. In recent months the university has welcomed three new deans and vice provosts, and two new vice presidents who bring a diverse range of experience and expertise. Welcome to Western!

I am glad to see so many staff members here this morning. Thank you for being here. This wonderful event today would not have happened without you, nor would any of our other accomplishments. Your dedication makes Western a safe, productive and attractive campus to work and study. Thank you for all that you do.

We also are joined by members of our student leadership, as well as some students. Welcome! We are appreciative that our students chose Western; their talents, commitment, ambition and curiosity is so critical to advancing our learning environment.

I am appreciative of Uzma’s presence at the convocation, and of her continual support and partnership in this journey. Together, we are grateful for the welcome and support we have received from the campus and Bellingham community. Thank you.

I want to offer a personal thanks to all of you who have taken the time to meet with me and to reach out to me since I took office last year. You have offered me advice and encouragement, weighed in on important initiatives and provided valuable feedback. You have shared your professional accomplishments and your dreams for the university.

I have learned about your passion for supporting Western’s student-centered learning environment, your commitment to advancing equity and diversity, and your pride in the institution we all call home. You have shared with me a wide range of ideas to improve our learning and living environment, including needs for greater access to courses and majors; upgraded spaces, including classrooms; better alignment between capital and space planning and academic priorities; improved onboarding and mentoring of new employees; integrated and thematic approaches to courses that constitute the General University Requirements; better accommodation of the health care needs of our students; and creating greater visibility for outstanding faculty research and graduate education. And, you talked to me about the need to consider questions important to the future positioning of the university—questions like: Should Western grow? What mechanisms should we use to take advantage of opportunities and advance innovative ideas? How can we drive equity and inclusive excellence more deeply into the culture of the institution? Your input and ideas have been invaluable to me in understanding Western and in helping shape my thinking about Western’s aspirational priorities.

In last year’s convocation comments, I asked us, as a university community, to reflect on our successes and strengths, and to imagine how we might apply them to aim even higher. The Provost and the Faculty Senate Leadership led the formation of the Strategic Planning Committee, which since December 2016, led a process of listening to you, the campus community and various external partners, and in synthesizing the input in the context of several external drivers impacting Western and higher education in the U.S. The current draft goals that were shared with the campus community last spring—providing transformative education, honoring the richness and plurality of this place, nurturing a caring community, and advancing justice and equity—and the associated objectives, reflect considerable effort and work. I want to thank you for participating in this process, and especially the Strategic Planning Committee for doing their complex work and for moving the process forward in a timely manner.

As I have reflected on the work of the Strategic Planning Committee and on my conversations with the campus community and the Board of Trustees, three over-arching themes seem to emerge that capture the long-term aspirations for Western and provide a contextual framework for goals and objectives articulated thus far: advancing inclusive success, enhancing academic excellence, and increasing Washington impact. Several important external drivers, including the imperative to provide high quality education to an increasingly diverse citizenry and the workforce needs in Washington state and the nation, also support our collective focus on these important issues.

Let me say a few words about each of these emerging themes.

The first theme is Advancing Inclusive Success. Higher education has never been more important to the economic and social development of our communities and our global society. The data from our ongoing economic recovery underscore what we have known for a long time: higher education is a precondition for upward social mobility and the most powerful social and economic equalizer. Our most important challenge, then, is to raise the success rate for all students, while eliminating gaps for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Western aspires to be a leader in student retention and on-time graduation, regardless of the socio-economic background of our students.  We have a moral imperative to ensure that Western more closely reflects the local and global diversity in which we live and which we seek to advance, including enrolling more underrepresented students and first-generation students from the state of Washington.  That will enable us to build a more diverse, inclusive and equitable community and culture of care for all.

The second theme is Enhancing Academic Excellence. Western prides itself on its quality of education and preparation of its graduates. We are well-positioned to increase our impact and contributions in ways that build upon and maintain the essence of what has made us distinctive. Western faculty’s research and creative work encompasses a wide range of topics and issues important to our social, economic and environmental progress, and faculty-mentored research opportunities enhance the educational experience for our students. We will continue to enhance and expand our undergraduate and graduate programs in the liberal arts and the professional disciplines, the high-impact learning experiences for our students, and a faculty culture of innovation that cuts across disciplines and integrates research and creative work in our academic programs.

Finally, the last theme is Increasing Washington Impact. We will work to increase our impact and contributions to the current and future economic development needs of Washington and the region by expanding access to our programs, leveraging partnerships to offer programs and credentials to place-bound and non-traditional students, and through the research and creative work of our faculty. Western’s education model with a strong liberal arts background ensures that our graduates are competitive for the best jobs after graduation and, at the same time, are prepared and adaptable to respond to continuously changing employment trends shaped by technology and innovation.  And, importantly, prepared to contribute to their communities as leaders and citizens.

As I have emphasized in my conversations with the Strategic Planning Committee and elsewhere, strategic planning is a process of co-creation that involves faculty, staff, students, administration, and our Board of Trustees. The co-creation process also means that the strategic plan is informed by input from our key external partners, as we are going to seek their support to garner resources needed to advance our goals and aspirations. The Strategic Planning Committee has done a commendable job reaching out to external groups, including the Foundation and Alumni Association Boards. The Committee and the administration will continue to seek advice and input internally and externally as we complete the strategic planning process by the end of the calendar year.

Apart from the strategic planning process, we made progress in a number of areas last year, thanks to the tireless work of the entire Western community. Due to brevity of time, let me mention just a few key achievements.

We secured two important accreditation milestones last year. First, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities reaffirmed the University’s accreditation after a comprehensive evaluation process that started in early 2016 with preparation of a self-study report and culminated with a NWCCU visit in spring 2017. Second, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology accredited Western’s programs in Electrical Engineering, Manufacturing Engineering, and Plastics and Composites Engineering. You may recall that while we got funding and approval from the state to create these programs, the approval ultimately is contingent on accreditation. This is a major milestone for the university as we moved these programs from engineering technology programs to engineering programs.

We awarded close to 3,800 degrees last year, a 10 percent increase over the past three years. Our first-year retention rate of about 82 percent, six-year graduation rate of about 70 percent, and transfer four-year graduation rate of about 72 percent were consistent with our performance of these metrics over the past several years. Western’s Career Services Center survey of the 2015-16 graduating class indicated continued improvement in job placement for recent grads, with 83 percent reporting employment and another 13 percent pursuing continuing education within six months of graduation, again speaking to the preparation of our graduates.

Our enrollment in fall 2016 was 15,574, about a 4 percent increase over the prior three-year period. However, due to a decrease in under-represented student enrollment in our entering freshman class of fall 2016, Enrollment Management, in partnership with University Marketing, focused on increasing diversity of the fall 2017 recruitment class. While the numbers are not yet final, students of color in the fall 2017 entering freshman class are up by about 19 percent over last year. We now have a shared responsibility to make sure that these students succeed at Western.

We had a successful year in fundraising, where our annual private giving totaled $16.7 million, compared to a three-year average of about $12 million. I was particularly impressed with Western’s Second Annual Give Day, which in June raised nearly $390,000 from 1,427 donors, both results more than doubling the success of the inaugural year, and that was in addition to the $190,000 raised in match money.

Beyond numbers, our faculty continue to be engaged in exciting and impactful research and creative work. I will not do justice if I list the work of a few faculty members at the exclusion of others. Suffice to say, I am thankful for the time many of you took during the year to share your work with Provost Carbajal and me and for showing the research and creative work in your labs and design spaces as we visited some of our academic units.

The outcome of the 2017 legislative process was better than many of us in post-secondary education predicted, given the McCleary challenge faced by the legislature. The extended Legislative session provided some new funding for higher education; for Western, this included $6 million in salary increase funding for all employees and $1 million for programs and initiatives designed to improve student academic success and increase degree completion. Specifically, with regard to employee compensation, for 2017-18 we will be able to honor the increases for faculty, professional staff and classified staff reflected in earlier agreements and compensation programs. Western will receive $15.3 million in Washington State Need Grant allocation for 2017-18, about $1.5 million more than we have ever received. While Washington state provides nationally low per-FTE funding, the state need grant has always been generous and a point of pride for all of Washington.

On the capital side, the Legislature adjourned sine die on July 20 without passing the final compromise 2017-19 capital budget. The most recent House and Senate proposals each include funding for many of Western’s capital budget priorities, but we will have to wait on the final word until the capital budget is approved. One thing we can be excited about on the capital side is the completion of Carver Academic Facility. We’ll have a grand re-opening in October. In addition to being upgraded for earthquake safety, new labs and classrooms for our health sciences majors—some of our most popular—are a huge deal.  And I’m sure our athletics coaches and staff are loving not only being back in the building, but having such a beautiful facility to show off to recruits. 

And speaking of Athletics, we are proud of the NCAA Division II National Championships won by Women’s Soccer and Women’s Rowing, as well as Bethany Drake winning the individual NCAA Division II Javelin National Championship. Additionally, four of our teams won GNAC Championships during the last academic year. We are equally proud, however, of our student athletes’ NCAA Academic Success Rate of 86 percent, fifteen percentage points higher than the NCAA Division II average and twelve percentage points higher than our GNAC peers.

Our successes, however, are balanced by our challenges.  An immediate issue that needs to be addressed is capacity bottlenecks in foundational areas and certain majors. One-time money was allocated during the 2016-17 academic year to the College of Science and Engineering and Huxley College of the Environment to address access issues. We have now directed approximately $700,000 for permanent tenure track positions for access and capacity in several areas, including Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, Environmental Sciences, Physics, and Electrical Engineering. Provost Carbajal is working with the relevant deans to implement this hiring initiative.

Some of the most challenging work in any organization is that which is focused on climate and culture. I want to recognize the work of several groups—the Task Force on Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity; Faculty Senate Social Justice and Equity Committee; and the Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Antisemitism -- for their work during the past academic year. Several recommendations from these groups are being implemented, including searches this fall for a tribal relations position and an LGBTQ resource position. We are moving forward with several other recommendations from these groups to ensure that they are integrated in the operations of relevant divisions, for example, initiatives for increasing student diversity with Enrollment Management and for increasing faculty diversity with Academic Affairs. Work on the design and layout of the Ethnic Student Center and Multicultural Services expansion, in collaboration with students, will continue this fall, with preparations for construction beginning this winter. I am deeply grateful to all who participated in these efforts over the past year, and I recognize them as important steps in our ongoing efforts to create the type of inclusively excellent environment that we all envision for Western.

I also want to acknowledge the work of the Sustainability Advisory Committee. A comprehensive effort that spanned close to two years has resulted in the development of a Sustainability Action Plan to articulate and implement Western’s commitments to sustainability in our campus operations and curriculum. Among the long-term goals of the plan are attaining complete carbon neutrality and integrating sustainability across the curriculum. The Committee will share the plan with the campus community within the next few weeks and we look forward to advancing the goals articulated in the plan, which will continue to position Western as a leader among universities in the area of sustainability. 

Monitoring and addressing issues of safety and providing a supportive education environment for all students remains an important priority for Western. Of particular concern has been the safety and support of undocumented students attending Western. As you know, the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program earlier this month, with a plan to phase it out over the next six months, while calling on Congress to replace the policy with legislation. Western has been, and continues to be, strongly opposed to ending this program that provides hope and opportunity for nearly 800,000 young people across the country since the inception of the program in 2012, including many Western students, their families and friends. We, along with leadership of other post-secondary institutions in Washington and nationally, will continue working with local, state, and national partners, including those in government, to advocate for preserving DACA and the protections and opportunities it affords. Western’s commitment to our undocumented students, and our policies regarding immigration status will not change. We will continue to monitor the situation at the national and the local level so that we can proactively plan to protect student safety. And, we will make sure that undocumented students have access to the same educational opportunities as all other students.

I was honored to be invited to the Whatcom Human Rights Taskforce event last January. In my comments, I mentioned that as a country we are as divided as we have ever been since I came to the U.S. in 1978, insulated in our own information bubbles and increasingly willing to engage in overheated and irresponsible rhetoric without considering the impact on actual human beings. It is only at the level of individual human beings that we can grapple with what Dr. King called the “eternal dignity and worth” of persons. I think part of the way forward requires bridging the impersonalizing, divisive and isolating forces at work in contemporary life. We must reach out to engage, listen, empathize, and acknowledge the humanity of others. We must strive to understand the different values, perspectives and experiences of others in a respectful and supportive environment. And, we must be relentlessly personal in revealing the consequences that words and deeds have for real people’s lives.

As you are well aware, some of the most urgent and sensitive issues we face today in higher education lie at the complex intersection of free expression, campus safety, and the respectful exchange of ideas. These complexities are reflected in Western’s distinctive mission and character as well. As a public institution, we are bound to observe state and federal laws regarding free expression. As a university, a central part of our mission is to prepare students for professional life and citizenship by teaching and modeling how to engage with, and converse around, controversial ideas. And, as a tightly knit campus community that cares deeply about our most vulnerable members, we are committed to equity, inclusion, and affirming the fundamental dignity and respect that people of all identities deserve. 

The right to free expression and speech is fundamental to our universities’ commitment to open discourse and academic freedom. The right to free expression includes a responsibility to allow for expression of differing perspectives and a responsibility to maintain civility and a respect for the dignity of all individuals. Acts of racism, discrimination, hatred or harassment, against anyone is not “protected speech” in any sense, and should not be tolerated. At Western and at all universities, the power of education must show the way to genuine acceptance and understanding, and to a recognition of our shared humanity. Western is committed to building a safe, authentically inclusive environment in which all people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. That is the true fulfillment of the great American dream, and a key component of Western`s mission.

As I stated earlier, we also must redouble our efforts to advance inclusive excellence. Certainly, this is an area where we have the power to make a difference. This involves our commitment to expanding opportunity and our commitment to ensuring the success of all students joining Western Washington University. It’s not just about the numbers of people coming in the door; it’s about meeting everyone where they are, and helping them graduate at the same rates with the tools they need to succeed beyond Western.

Finally, let me turn my attention to our plans for this academic year.

As I mentioned, we will complete the development of the strategic plan by the end of fall 2017. While we already are working on several implementation activities, we will accelerate our work to advance the themes and goals articulated in the plan to ensure that Western continues to be a standout institution of choice, for students, faculty, and staff.

This fall we will start work on a resource plan that complements the strategic plan and that ensures a sustainable financial path to success for the university. An important element of the plan is a long-term enrollment management plan, built on meeting the challenge put forward in the Washington Student Achievement Council’s 2017-19 Strategic Action Plan—that by 2023 all adults in Washington, ages 25-44, will have a high school diploma or equivalent and at least 70 percent of Washington adults will have a postsecondary credential. Why 70 percent? Because that is the percentage of jobs in the next decade which will likely require a 2 or 4-year degree in Washington. It’s sobering to consider that the percentage of adults in Washington who currently have a 2 or 4-year credential is hovering around 50 percent. If the people of Washington are going to be competitive for those jobs, the entire P-20 system, with support from the legislature, needs to “raise its game”. 

We will assess and expand evidence-based retention practices to increase student persistence rates, a process that we initiated in the last academic year. The Provost and the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services will lead the effort to identify opportunities for redirecting existing efforts and investing the new funding that we have received from the legislature to enhance student success.

We will initiate a faculty hiring initiative with the goal to expand representation of diverse, qualified candidates applying to the university. We will start the program this year with new faculty hires authorized by the University and for any positions involving direct reports to the president and the provost. We will continue with our efforts to recruit students of color and we will bring to fruition an initiative to increase international enrollments at Western, as part of the broader effort to increase international diversity and global understanding at Western. Over the next couple of weeks, I will appoint a Leadership Council for Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice. Continuing the work of the Task Force, the Council will guide our institutional strategies for advancing a more inclusive and caring campus climate. I also will appoint a Commission on Gender Equity to better understand experiences of female students, staff, faculty, and administrators at Western, and the barriers to career advancement for women.

One year ago, Uzma and I were tremendously honored to join the Western community. Having spent a year learning and listening I am even more excited and filled with hope about what we can and will become together. Not because Western is perfect; not because we are so secure or successful in achieving our mission that we can afford to rest on our laurels—far from it. There is a lot of hard work ahead for us to achieve our aspirations and keep our commitments to our students, to each other, to the people of Washington and the world. Talk, as they say, is cheap. Our global, national, and local communities face enormous challenges, from climate change to political and social upheaval; refugee crises to crises of trust; alarming vacuums of humanity, empathy, and in some cases, plain common sense and decency. What’s exciting and hopeful about that, you might say? I am excited and hopeful because we have a historic opportunity to be part of the solution. More than ever, the world needs us, and needs our graduates, to step up to help make the world a better place—and I know we can answer that call. I am excited because, in the past year, I have learned that Western is full of smart, creative, dedicated and caring people who are invested in making a difference in the lives of others. There is no more powerful tool for change, to uplift individual lives and whole communities, than education. We do not have the “luxury” of succumbing to despair, or inaction, or doubt about what good we can do in the face of all that negativity—everyone in this room knows that we have a duty, and the power, to be a force for positive change. That is what we are working toward, together. I know that the Western community will continue to execute its deep commitment to student success, learning and scholarship, and exemplary service. Please know that I truly appreciate everything you do to deliver on the mission of the university. 

I appreciate your support and I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to work with you, every day, to advance Western. Thank You.