Remarks to the Bellingham Leadership Forum, November 17, 2016

Thank you for being here today at the Western Leadership Forum.  Still being new to Bellingham, I see many new faces in the audience, in addition to familiar ones who have already graciously welcomed Uzma and me to Bellingham.  I look forward to learning more from all of you about our community’s needs, and how Western can be a stronger partner in helping to meet them.     

I’ve been thinking about the many dimensions of leadership that bring us together today.  At the top of the list, of course, is the opportunity to learn from one of the most distinguished leaders of our time, Dr. Robert Gates. We are thrilled to have him here today.  His many years of public service at the highest levels of national government, in the intelligence community, and in higher education have given him an uncommonly broad perspective on effective leadership.  I know you all are looking forward to the conversation as much as I am.

This is also a gathering of leaders.  And while there are leadership challenges unique to each of our organizations, I think it is also stimulating to think about the ways that our challenges, needs, aspirations and visions overlap.

Earlier this month, Uzma and I were at a meeting of American Association of State Colleges and Universities. One of the keynote speakers at the meeting was Vijay Govendarajan, distinguished professor at Dartmouth College’s School of Business, who worked with then GE’s (General Electric) CEO Jeffrey Immelt to introduce the idea of reverse innovation. His presentation, however, was entitled “The Three Box Solution” after the title of his latest best-selling book. The concept of his first box is managing the present; the second box, selectively forgetting the past; and the third box, creating the future. As I reflected on the concepts, what struck me as the most complex task in this cycle was selectively forgetting the past in the process of creating the possibility space for the future, while minimizing impact on the present.

Higher education is faced with pressures and challenges, and the recent elections have only made those issues more obvious.  If I were to condense them into a sentence, it would be to increase the number of graduates and student success, while eliminating achievement gaps across all student groups, especially those students traditionally underrepresented in higher education. 

The disruptive innovation, or the Box 3 strategy, that is needed in higher education is to advance solutions to this problem that work at scale. 

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. Quality education requires students’ participation in high impact experiences in business, public and civic organizations. Western’s partnerships with your organizations is critical and I see room for tremendous growth and mutual benefit going forward.

As leaders, we are all responsible not only for creating a compelling vision of the future, but nurturing the leaders of tomorrow.  Those leaders, for our community, our business, schools, hospitals and organizations, are today’s students at Western. They are the middle and high school students in Whatcom and Skagit Counties being mentored by Western students in our award-winning Compass 2 Campus mentoring program.  And they are increasingly likely to come from families from the bottom income quartiles, where they will be the first to earn a college degree.

How can we help them succeed, so that we help ourselves, our organizations, and our community succeed?

In response to these challenging times, we are more committed than ever to being responsive to the needs of the state, and our local community. But we cannot do it alone, and that is where we are so grateful for your support, your partnership, and your willingness to tell us how we can improve to better serve you.

Thank you for being here today for our students, and for your partnership, past, present, and future.