The “Pandemic Year” in Review

 

Dear Western Community,

We are nearing the end of a year unlike any other in our history. I imagine that you are looking forward to saying goodbye to 2020, and welcoming a healthier, safer, and brighter 2021, as much as I am.

I am deeply grateful to our faculty, staff and students for their flexibility, adaptability, and resilience throughout this pandemic. I know it has not been easy to adjust to the many pivots, stresses and strains throughout fall quarter.  In spite of that, students put on their masks and took on the challenges of learning and adapting with a positive spirit and care for the safety of others.  Our faculty learned how to teach and mentor students in new ways and added an even greater level of care and compassion.

That work has been supported by strong leadership from the Incident Management Team, and our Student Health Center team continues to do a phenomenal job of ensuring the safety of our students. Their work has been recognized statewide and, in fact, Western’s approach to batch surveillance testing was recognized as one of the exemplars in a report on COVID-19 Testing Strategies for Colleges and Universities released by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine on December 1st.

We have mitigated impacts to students with disbursement of aid from CARES funding, emergency student aid grants from the WWU Foundation, reductions in mandatory student fees where possible, laptop lending and tech support from ATUS, and more. We have improved and expanded support services offered remotely, including academic and career advising, counseling and wellness. 

And I’m grateful to our donors and friends who put their faith in Western, and offered constant support including financial resources for student scholarships and emergent student needs as a result of the pandemic.

Our enrollment management and marketing teams worked very hard on encouraging students to return and enrolling a new fall 2020 class. That was a serious challenge as students weighed the option of a year of remote education, compounded by safety concerns, and pandemic-driven economic issues. Nevertheless, our overall enrollment of about 15,200 students, is better than we had projected in spring, with a surprisingly minor drop in continuing students offsetting a drop in the first-year cohort.

We cancelled all athletics competition for fall 2020 and we will continue to monitor and evaluate the feasibility of competitive sports programs for the rest of the academic year. The academic performance of our student-athletes, however, was recognized by the NCAA. We were one of only six public NCAA Division II institutions to receive the NCAA President’s Award for Academic Excellence for having achieved a six-year graduation rate of 90% among our student-athletes.

Construction work remains on track for the Interdisciplinary Science Building and the new residence hall and we have renovated more than 20 classrooms, most of them in Miller and Bond halls, for when we are hopefully back in full force in fall 2021.

All-in-all, we have done as well as anyone could have predicted or expected, and I owe a ton of gratitude to every member of the Western community.

 

COVID-19 FINANCIAL IMPACTS AND OUTLOOK FOR 2021

Despite the enrollment revenue dip and increased costs associated with health and technology needs, we were able to weather the first part of the storm with cost-control measures, conservative spending, support from the federal stimulus package, and judicious use of institutional reserves.

This doesn’t mean that the coming biennium will not have its challenges, as we need to recover from the longer-term structural deficit from reduced enrollments.  We will be making the case for higher education’s critical role in our state’s economic recovery during the upcoming legislative session, and our admissions and marketing teams are again hard at work on recruiting next year’s class.

The transition to remote operations has had a disproportionate impact on self-support units, specifically on University Residences, where there is a near $30 million drop in gross revenue. There was no housing and dining revenue in spring 2020 and we have been operating at about 25% capacity in fall, a situation that is expected to continue throughout the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year. While University Residences has been able to reduce expenses, the resulting financial impact has been significant. To mitigate expenses, we were able to refinance housing and dining bonds in the summer, which will help move those immediate obligations to future years.

This set of circumstances forced us to postpone the decision about the future of our dining operations. We are not in a financial position to support the significant upfront investment were we to move forward with self-operation, and the current business environment makes it extraordinarily difficult to negotiate a sound business contract. As a result, we decided to extend the current contract with Aramark for two additional years.

I understand the disappointment expressed by several students to delay the decision, and their concerns about working with corporate entities whose practices may be inconsistent with our university values. The two-year extension gives us some breathing room for further analysis and to make a long-term decision in a less challenging environment. We are committed to an open process that will engage different student groups, as well as other constituents interested and impacted by the decision.  More information about the decision process and what comes next is available on the WWU Dining Transitions website:  https://www.wwu.edu/dining-transitions.

 

ADVANCING DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION

Despite the disruptions of COVID, the work toward our strategic priorities continues. While much has changed, the fundamentals remain the same, and only more urgent: addressing inclusive student success, advancing diversity, equity and inclusion goals, and increasing our positive impact statewide.

We made a commitment to our Black Student Organizations that we will make substantive progress during the year to address several demands they raised at the start of summer:

  • We have started the process of filling two positions in Enrollment and Student Services: A Multicultural Student Initiatives Executive Director and an African American Student Retention Counselor.
  • We have increased capacity for multicultural mental health in Counseling Services.
  • We will initiate a climate survey conducted by the USC Center for Urban Education in winter quarter.
  • We initiated equity and inclusion training for executive and academic leadership in summer, continuing into fall, and we expect mandatory training to be in place for students starting winter quarter.
  • The Faculty Senate has undertaken comprehensive work to reframe and update the undergraduate General University Requirements to include a set of courses around issues of power, equity and justice in the U.S. and the broader world.
  • We launched a Bias Response Team and a Structural Equity Team to both respond to specific incidents of bias on our campus and in our community, and to provide a deeper examination of the conditions leading to bias incidents to inform longer-term actions to build and sustain a more equitable, inclusive and diverse campus community.
  • Last week, the Board of Trustees approved naming the new residence hall for Alma Clark Glass, the first Black student to enroll at Western.
  • We are finalizing a Legacy Review Task Force to review building and college names beginning in winter quarter.

As I have said before, advancing equity, inclusion, and diversity is a process—it’s not simple and it will not be quick. It is a process in which we must continuously educate, reflect, and act. And it is essential if we are to substantively advance inclusive student success.

 

OUR WESTERN COMMUNITY

As if 2020 wasn’t already hard enough, we have also suffered the loss of two highly productive and valued faculty members this fall: Craig Mayberry in the College of Business and Economics, and Trula Nicholas in Woodring College of Education. They deeply cared about Western, its students and their colleagues, and they will be missed not just on campus but in our greater community.

I want to acknowledge that the economic and work impact of the pandemic, coupled with the stress of racial injustices, has been hard on our community, particularly for individuals from marginalized backgrounds. Our faculty and staff have worked hard to keep up with the ever-changing environment. While the recent vaccine development is quite encouraging, we need to acknowledge that we will likely be in the current mode of operation for at least the rest of this academic year. And so, we need to balance the recognition that many are stretched thin with the importance of continuing to move the needle on our goals. 

Fall quarter and in fact most of 2020 has been a time of great challenge, but also of learning and growth. Now, I ask that you take a deep breath and relax. Reconnect with loved ones. Renew your mind, body and spirit. Take care of yourself as we prepare for what’s ahead.

Even with all the unprecedented challenges that 2020 has delivered to us, I remain hopeful; perhaps more hopeful than ever. We have important work to do, and what gives me hope is that we have people—faculty, staff, and students—across the institution who are committed to advancing this work in collective partnership. I am honored to be at this place, at this particular time, to be part of this urgent work. Thank you for being part of this journey.

My sincere best wishes to you and your families for a safe and joyous holiday season.

 

Sabah Randhawa

President