The President's Report 2022
Dear Friends of Western Washington University,
I joined Western in fall 2016, drawn by its quality educational brand and with aspirations to drive student success to new levels and to help make Western an even greater contributor to the economic and social development of the state and the region. We developed and adopted an ambitious strategic plan that focuses on inclusive student success, impact in the region, and academic excellence.
Over the past two years, we had to deal with a health crisis none of us could have envisioned even a few weeks before we were drawn into it in March 2020. This has been an unprecedented time for our society and for higher education. The effects of the pandemic are deep and long lasting, and the resulting health and economic impacts have disproportionately harmed the most vulnerable in our communities, making existing inequalities worse.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to introduce changes in how to deliver effectively on our teaching, learning and research mission, and pivot our attention from our longer-term plans to the daily urgencies created by the pandemic. However, the COVID-19 crisis has also shown how we can adapt and come together in new and innovative ways to advance the mission of the University and public education at a time when it is needed more than ever.
I firmly believe that the vision we defined in our strategic plan is even more relevant and pressing today than it was in 2018-19.
I also believe that Western has a tremendous opportunity to be a thought leader and a catalyst for change in advancing educational opportunities in our state, particularly to populations traditionally under-represented in higher education. We are working hard to listen, engage and play our part in creating the next generation of leaders and citizens and change our communities for the better.
Against this backdrop, I begin the 2022-23 academic year with both tremendous appreciation for what we collectively accomplished over the past year and great optimism about the year ahead.
We are pleased with the outcomes from the State Legislature’s supplemental session that provided funding to expand critical student support services to mitigate impacts of the pandemic, additional support for the RN-to-BSN in Nursing Program and funding to establish a Master’s in Nursing, and funding for equipment upgrades and technical support for the Cyber Range in Poulsbo.
We continue to expand the University’s physical infrastructure to support our students and academic programs, with the opening of the Interdisciplinary Science Building and Alma Clark Glass Hall, a 400-bed residence facility named in honor of the first Black student who attended Western, in 1906. We are now in the design phase for two new projects, both enabled by public-private partnerships: Kaiser Borsari Hall which will house expanded Electrical Engineering, Compuer Science, and Energy Studies programs, and a Coast Salish-style longhouse.
We created the Office of Equity to bring together two complementary functions, compliance and community education and development, and to provide oversight to policies and initiatives that promote a learning and work environment where accessibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion (ADEI) are valued and integrated in institutional planning and operations. We are pleased to welcome Dr. Jacqueline Hughes from California State University, San Bernardino as Western’s first Chief Diversity Officer and Executive Director of the Office of Equity.
We appointed a seasoned leader in Dr. Brad Johnson, previously the dean for the College of Science and Engineering, as Western’s next Provost and Executive Vice President. We are also pleased to welcome Dr. Teena Gabrielson as the Dean for the College of the Environment from the University of Wyoming.
A recent visit to Shannon Point Marine Center made me appreciate the impressive research of our faculty, with the work spanning important topics like conservation of marine species, ecology of estuaries, and ocean acidification. While I cannot do justice to the wide and varied portfolio of research and creative work across the institution, I would like to highlight the work of three faculty members who are recent recipients of CAREER grants from the National Science Foundation: Assistant Professor Alia Khan in Environmental Sciences for her work on evaluating the role of temperature, light-absorbing particles and snow-algae growth on snow and ice melt in the Western Antarctic Peninsula; Assistant Professor Suzanne Lee in the Department of Biology for her work to explain the underlying molecular mechanisms that govern RNA production, function, and degradation to maintain optimal cellular health; and Assistant Professor Nick Galati, also in Biology, for his research on cilia, evolutionarily ancient, hair-like organelles that enable intercellular communication.
In June, our first fully in-person spring commencement ceremonies after two years of virtual ceremonies was a joyful reaffirmation of the work we do to prepare students for meaningful lives of achievement and positive impact in the world. As I have often said, our graduates are the most important contribution we make to society. This past year, nearly 3,700 students graduated from Western.
And as we look forward to the new year, I’m pleased to report that our incoming fall 2022 class of first-year students is the largest in Western’s 129-year history, surpassing previous records set in the pre-pandemic fall 2018 and 2019 quarters. Few of our peers can point to a return to pre-pandemic enrollment levels. But the news is not all good: The challenges of the pandemic continue to set us back in our efforts to provide equitable access to higher education. First-generation students make up 22.4% of our student body, down from 27% last year, and Pell Grant-eligible students make up 19.6%, down from 21%. This has created a new urgency at Western to better support students at each step on their journey, including more proactive advising that starts as soon as the student enrolls, to sustained connections and tailored support for both academically talented and academically developing learners.
As we work to achieve our number-one priority of advancing inclusive student success, one of the most gratifying outcomes of our recruitment outreach work this year is the fact that a stunning 83.4% of our new first-year students completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the Washington state equivalent, the Washington Application for State Financial Aid. That compares to about 58% of students nationally and 42% for Washington state overall. Each year millions of students who are eligible for federal and state financial aid dollars are unable to complete the FAFSA, leaving money on the table that could have helped them pursue post-secondary education. That’s why raising awareness and offering free one-on-one advising is so important.
Even as we celebrate the addition of several important new hires, we also struggle with employee retention. Throughout the pandemic recovery period, higher education has not been immune to the great resignation wave affecting nearly every industry. Due to improved state revenue and the availability of one-time federal COVID-19 relief funds, the 2022 supplemental operating budget reflects the strongest compensation package the University has received since before the Great Recession. These increases are essential to fulfilling our mission, but more needs to be done. We will work closely with the Legislature in the coming months on employee compensation, as well as advancing our key priorities around student access and success, and expanding graduate education programs.
Over the past year, we have accomplished much, we have much to celebrate, and, despite all the difficulties of the past two years, we can anticipate new beginnings, new growth, and even new dimensions to our mission. We have never lost sight of the fact that Western Washington University exists for the public good. That commitment is even more important as we look ahead to the important role expected of us as we address the long-term impacts of the pandemic. I appreciate your engagement and your commitment to Western Washington University as we venture forward together.
Sabah Randhawa, President