President Randhawa Addresses WWU Faculty and Staff at Opening Convocation
September 16, 2016
Thank you, Kristen, for your kind introduction.
It is a special privilege to speak to you today as we recognize our distinguished faculty and staff colleagues for their accomplishments. Congratulations to our honorees.
It is a tremendous honor to lead Western. I would like to start by expressing my thanks to the Board of Trustees, members of the search committee, and to all of you for the trust you have placed in me. Over the past six weeks, Uzma and I have had the opportunity to meet with leaders in our community and around the state, including alumni, donors, and friends of Western, as well as a number of legislators. In all my meetings here on campus, I am impressed with a shared, passionate commitment to Western and for advancing the institution. This has made me all the more excited about working with you to chart the next phase of excellence for this wonderful institution.
I also want to thank President Bruce Shepard for his support during my transition. His leadership has positioned Western to dream big.
Today, I invite you to engage in three important reflections:
- To appreciate and be proud of Western’s success
- To imagine the future of Western
- And to consider that the best is still ahead for Western as we work collaboratively to further advance Western together
My knowledge of Western has grown from a distance – I have known Western due to its proximity to my previous institution in the Pacific Northwest, and due to my service on the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. But it was during the presidential interview process that I learned about Western as an excellent, student-centered learning institution. I was pleased to learn about Western as a highly ranked public, master’s granting university in the nation, recognized for the quality and rigor of its programs, for affordability, for its cost-effectiveness, and for being identified by its faculty and staff as a great place to work. The idea that Western is a destination campus has been reinforced in several conversations: not only students, but faculty and staff come to Western because they truly want to be here. I have also learned about the excellence of Western’s athletic programs, eight consecutive GNAC (Great Northwest Athletic Conference) all-sports championships, and 12 in the last 15 seasons. I have learned that Western graduates are successful and well sought out in the private and public sectors. I am impressed with the caring and the nurturing culture that you have created and sustained at Western. I know that this doesn’t ‘just happen,’ and I commend you for this culture.
Yet, as you all know, there is no such state as status quo: we are either moving up or we are moving down, relative to the world around us. I believe that there are two critical factors that sustain great organizations. The first is their ability to create a culture that enables them to be resilient and adaptable to changing times, while maintaining a sense of purpose and being true to their fundamental values. The second factor is their ability to attract and nurture human talent to advance their core mission and drive innovation. I also believe that educational institutions are no exception to the laws of organizational change. Unlike many private organizations, though, educational institutions do not typically disappear, but they do become less relevant in their impact or they sink to mediocrity.
We have a tremendous opportunity to ensure that Western is an exemplar among higher education institutions in the United States and globally. I believe in this opportunity. To uncover this path, I invite us to collectively imagine the future of Western. Perhaps one way to think about the future is to envision the story we would like others to tell about Western at its sesquicentennial celebration.
To that end, we will initiate a strategic planning process during the fall term, a process that will engage the Western community, and our partners around the state and beyond. Our fundamental mission to provide exceptional graduates who can successfully compete, lead, and make a positive difference in an increasingly diverse and global society remains unchanged. In addition to contributing to the State of Washington and our nation through our graduates, we continue to have a responsibility to contribute to the economic and social development of our state and the communities we serve through our outreach, engagement and creative and entrepreneurial activities.
While the overall mission remains the same, the circumstances in which we operate are evolving continuously. The strategic planning process is an opportunity to take stock of the changing external environment, sharpen our mission critical commitments, and define aspirational goals and outcomes. I hope that we can uncover aspirations that stretch our imagination, and through them articulate compelling reasons for the state and our partners to invest in the future of Western. And, for our students to see Western as an indispensable and accessible investment in their own future.
Strategic planning is not just about responding to demands for the external environment, but as Margaret Wheatley suggests in her remarkable book, Leadership and the New Science (1992), “in strategic planning…we create the environment through our own strong intentions.”
The work of Western’s community during the presidential transition process will be invaluable in this planning process. The most recent institutional SCOT (Strengths-Challenges-Opportunities-Threats) analysis and the presidential profile represent thoughtful input and reflections across the institution. One opportunity that particularly struck me from the SCOT analysis was “Living the full mission” of Western, that is, living up to the full promise and potential of Western. To me, this captures the essence of applying Western’s considerable strengths to meeting the critical needs of the state of Washington and beyond, and captures several important elements of future success, including access, affordability and completion; student, faculty and staff diversity; and capital and human resource development.
I would not presume to define Western’s future—that is something for all of us to engage in throughout this strategic planning process. However, I would like to share with you some observations which I think will give you a sense of my values related to issues that I believe will have a significant impact on higher education and Western, going forward. Issues that we must grapple with in any realistic imagining of the future.
I have had the privilege to work at another major public university for the last 30 years. My biggest take away from that experience is the importance of the access mission for public higher education. The Morrill Act of 1862 created the land grant institutions. The innovation of this far reaching legislation was to make higher education accessible to anyone who had the ability to pursue it, not just those born into positions of economic and social privilege. Higher education has never been more important to the economic and social development of our communities and our global society. It is now a precondition for upward mobility. Workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher have accounted for 73% (8.4 million) of the 11.6 million jobs gained in the recovery after the recession. Yet, higher education is faced with pressures and challenges that we must address, intentionally and effectively.
To put things in perspective, let me share a few national statistics with you:
- Only 53 percent of students who enrolled in 2009 in four-year college degree programs graduated in 2015. Barely half in six years.
- Between 1970 and 2010, bachelor’s degree attainment rates for students from families with income in the top quartile nearly doubled from 40% to about 78%. In contrast, degree attainment for students from the bottom family income quartile has remained essentially constant at about 9%. No progress in the last 40 years. We are going to see increasingly more students attending our universities from the bottom family income quartiles, which also are more ethnically and racially diverse.
- The average student loan debt for graduates of the Class of 2015 was about $35,000, with the latest figure on total U.S. student debt being $1.3 trillion.
- Only 5% of Americans ages 25 to 34 whose parents did not finish high school have a college degree. In comparison, the average for the same demographics across 20 other rich countries is almost 20%.
Our most important challenge then is to advance inclusive excellence, that is, increase the number of graduates and student success, while eliminating achievement gaps for students from diverse and under-represented socio-economic backgrounds. Inclusive excellence also means reaching and including more of the underrepresented students and first generation students in the state of Washington in our academic programs. The disruptive innovation that is needed in higher education is to advance solutions that work at scale. I was sold on Western when I learned that its six-year graduation rate is over 70 percent. I am committed to advancing student engagement and success for all group of students. We have a great platform at Western to advance access and completion, and we have an opportunity to be an exemplar in this area
But it is not just about the number of graduates! It is also about the quality of education and the preparation of our graduates so they can be successful in a continuously changing work and social environment. We also know that our graduates will change careers multiple times and many will have jobs that do not even exist today. Western’s focus on developing the whole person and its strong liberal arts education provides our graduates with a competitive advantage to be effective citizens of the nation and the world and to effectively navigate the workplace. We have a good track record at Western in what Martin Luther King Jr defined as “complete education,” which gives “not only the power of concentration, but worthy objectives on which to concentrate.” (Scott Newstok, “How to Think Like Shakespeare,” The Chronicle Review, August 29, 2016.) Surely we can sustain and enhance the Western reputation for excellence even as we explore new directions for the university.
We also need to make sure that Western more closely reflects the global diversity in which we live and which we seek to advance. During the past academic year, Western has engaged in discussions about creating a more diverse and inclusive community and, led by our students, the university community has been working to create safe spaces and an inclusive culture. Still, there is more to be done. Systemic inequalities, prejudices and biases based on differences in race, sexual orientation, religion and other important dimensions continue to exist in our society. As educators and leaders, we have the responsibility to listen more openly, respond more sensitively and support more intentionally efforts towards a just, inclusive and equitable campus community. Building community will require continued commitment, persistence of thought and action, collective learning, and purposeful behavior.
Global diversity also means that we cultivate global citizenship in our graduates so they have the perspectives to make well informed judgements, the curiosity to learn about others’ values and cultures, and the wisdom to challenge their own mental models. Our community will be richer and stronger if its members come from the widest possible range of socioeconomic and multicultural groups.
Western’s outreach and engagement mission is critical to serve the region and the state, a mission that is significantly enhanced by the power of partnerships. I have seen examples of exemplary partnerships during the past six weeks. Western’s partnership with Olympic and Peninsula community colleges in Western on the Peninsulas provides new education pathways for students in Bremerton, Poulsbo and Port Angeles. Western’s Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, the new SEA Discovery Center in Poulsbo and the Compass 2 Campus initiative on the main campus all partner with K-12 to open higher education possibilities for youth in the education pipeline. A different, but equally important, example of partnership is the recently established Jaffe Professorship, which leveraged private philanthropy with $250,000 in state support to create a $1 million endowed position in Jewish History. Going forward, we need to deepen existing and explore new partnerships with the state, industry, K-12 and community colleges, other four-year institutions, tribal nations and the city of Bellingham to create new educational pathways for students and enable our faculty to expand and leverage their research and creative work to benefit our communities.
Plans do not produce results, people do. Western’s future depends on our ability to attract and retain the best and most diverse human talent. In particular, faculty are core to the education, research and outreach mission of Western. The work in academic colleges and centers and institutes, like the Institute for Energy Studies, speaks to faculty creativity and impact in critical areas such as education, health, climate change, ocean acidification, and energy and clean technology. An important goal of the strategic planning process is to enhance the innovation culture and a resourcing process so that we can take advantage of emerging opportunities and seek new and varied sources of support to attract and retain preeminent faculty and build strong academic programs.
Investing in the future means that we take the long term view. And this requires a different kind of thinking; a strategic approach to the long term is different in kind from the sum of the short terms. Yet, we cannot ignore the short term imperatives and challenges. As we work to identify our long-term aspirations and goals, we will continue to work on a number of critical activities during the academic year, including advocating for higher education and Western’s priorities in the 2017-19 biennium legislative session, enhancing diversity and inclusivity, ensuring that we meet 2017 enrollment targets, advancing student success and quality of our programs, and building our fundraising enterprise. While we will continue to make the best case to the legislature for funding in higher education and need-based aid, we need to recognize that the same forces that are stretching us at the university to optimize our performance are at play at the state level and nationally. The outcome is that we are competing for scarce resources with other important social priorities. Our success in expanding our revenue base, including private fundraising, will be critical for enabling the margin of excellence that we seek at Western.
As we start this journey together, I am reminded of the African proverb:
“If you want to go fast, go alone
If we want to go far, go together.”
I have learned the power of shared governance. I believe shared governance is based on the premise that we have incredibly bright people who are part of our academic institution. The goal of shared governance is to make sure that we tap into that expertise and provide the alignment that is needed to advance a complex, decentralized organization. In addition to our shared governance with faculty, our partnerships with staff and students are equally important to advance the university. I look forward to working with all of you in the development and execution of the strategic plan. Critical to our success, we will work in parallel to develop a business plan, which will help us define the resources that we will need to advance our aspirations.
In closing, let me reiterate my three messages:
- Be proud of Western’s success. Western is the best deal for public education in the state of Washington, in terms of the quality of our graduates, the value we provide for students, and the value we provide to the state in funding per student FTE for Western.
- Imagine the future of Western. Now is the right time to envision and imagine our path to even greater excellence and “Living the full mission,” building on quality, inclusiveness and multiculturalism, a path that can make a compelling case for investment in Western’s future.
- Let’s further advance Western together. We can make Western even stronger, working together, by being bold, purposeful and focused.
And as we think about the imagining process, I will leave you with these words from the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer:
“Thus the task is not so much to see
what no one has yet seen,
but to think what nobody yet has thought
about that which everyone sees.”
Uzma and I are excited to join you and to call Bellingham our home. We wish each of you a very productive, healthy and successful academic year, and we look forward to partnering with you to advance Western.