State of the University Address in Poulsbo

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Remarks delivered by President Randhawa in Poulsbo, WA on November 13, 2019:


Good evening!  Thank you for joining us tonight.  We’re very pleased to be here to share an update on exciting things happening at Western Washington University. 

Just over a month ago, I was here at the Sea Discovery Center, where we celebrated two-and-a-half decades of providing environmental science and policy programs on the Peninsulas.  This academic year also marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Western’s Huxley College of the Environment as the world’s first interdisciplinary environmental college.  2020 also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the founding of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. 

What you may not know is that the genesis for Huxley on the Peninsulas was in Port Angeles in response to the community need for job re-training due to the decline of the logging industry.  The program was then expanded into Poulsbo and other communities in Kitsap County and the city of Everett.  What makes this program unique is its connection to local community projects and to professors and instructors who are hands-on environmental scientists, whose work goes well beyond the classroom.

I’d like to share a video of a project that Dr. David Wallin and a group of undergraduate students have been involved in over the past two summers with the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife.


I think that video beautifully demonstrates the kind of hands-on learning experiences that Western students have access to, and it’s an apt metaphor for Western’s commitment to serve as a bridge between the Peninsulas and the North Cascades.  I also like that the “ending” was more appropriately termed a “beginning.”  We at Western also are at the beginning of a new era of commitment to the Peninsulas. 

As you well know, the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas region is one of the most underserved areas in our state when it comes to access to baccalaureate and graduate post-secondary degree programs.  Western has offered programs in Poulsbo, Bremerton and Port Angeles in partnership with Olympic and Peninsula colleges for about 20 years, but most of those programs are not subsidized by the state and therefore more expensive to students. 

For the 2020 supplemental budget, Western is requesting $1.9 million per year which would allow us to transition all Western on the Peninsulas programs from self-sustaining to state-funded to significantly reduce the tuition rate by more than $12,000 over two years.  This request would also enable us to improve four-year degree pathways by funding key academic advising, financial aid counseling, recruitment and other student support positions. 

The cost difference between state-funded and tuition-funded degree programs creates significant inequities between students attending state-funded degree programs on Western’s Bellingham campus and students enrolled in Western on the Peninsulas degree programs.  For low-income students, the cost difference is even more of a barrier, as income-based financial aid programs like the Washington College Grant (formerly known as the State Need Grant) only cover tuition costs of state-funded programs.  Currently, the only state-funded programs at Western on the Peninsulas are Cybersecurity and the Early Childhood Education program which was funded in the 2018 supplemental budget.

This proposal is the initial phase in expanding and improving access to higher education on the Peninsulas.  Over the next 10 years, Western’s goal is to increase Peninsulas enrollment from about 200 today to at least 1,000 students through in-person, remote video classroom technology and online delivery methods.

Lowering tuition costs through state support will make Western’s programs more affordable for place-bound students on the Peninsulas, which will support increased enrollment in current programs.  This increase will, in turn, enhance Western’s presence and visibility on the Peninsulas, which we hope will lead to increased interest in Western as the university of choice for such students.  Also, we anticipate that enrollments at Olympic and Peninsula colleges will increase as well.  We are grateful for the collaboration from leadership and faculty members at our sister institutions on the Peninsulas, and we look forward to expanding our successful 2+2 model to serve more students and address regional workforce skill gaps.

The current proposal before the legislature does not request capital construction funding.  There is currently space available at all three Western on the Peninsulas locations to accommodate our current growth projections.  But, as enrollments increase, Western may request, perhaps in collaboration with our community college partners, future capital funding for an additional academic building as well as maintenance and operations funding for existing facilities.

Recently, I was with members of the Washington Roundtable, where we spent close to two hours discussing how we at Western, and the collective higher education sector, can help the state meet the current and future workforce needs of our state.  More specifically, the Washington Roundtable has articulated a goal—that by 2030, 70% of Washington students will complete a postsecondary credential by age 26. 

The funding provided by the Legislature in the last legislative session under HB 2158 (known as the Workforce Education Investment Act) is focused on making meaningful progress towards the 70% attainment goal.  My conversation with the Washington Roundtable focused on Western’s contribution toward this goal.

I shared with the Roundtable that expansion of Western on the Peninsulas is fully aligned with the 70% attainment goal as is the university’s 2025 strategic plan which commits to three core themes:  advancing inclusive success, increasing Washington impact and enhancing academic excellence.  Offering greater access to place-bound and non-traditional students is both a key strategy in addressing current and future workforce demands in Washington, and quite simply, it’s the right thing to do.

At the core of advancing inclusive success is ensuring that any person from any background can succeed at Western.  While retention and graduation numbers provide the measure of whether we are advancing our goals, we all know that we are not educating numbers; we are educating human beings with complex, distinctive identities who need to feel welcomed and supported in order to flourish both in and out of the classroom.

A student body that reflects the diversity of the state of Washington is an important part of our mission and strategic plan.  Our enrollment this fall stands at 16,153 and we have had the two largest incoming classes in university history in fall 2018 and fall 2019.  We’re proud of the fact that students of color now comprise 27% of our student body, and among this year’s fall first-year students, nearly 31% are students of color.  In addition, this fall 29% of first-year and 42% of transfer students are first generation students, or those who are the first from their families to attend college.

We also realize that students enrolled in our programs on the Peninsulas are quite different from students on the main campus.  For our students on the Peninsulas, 70% are age 25 or older, 56% are first generation, and 49% are low-income or Pell Grant eligible.  We need to make sure that we provide the support these students need to be successful; in fact, part of our request to the legislature in the current supplemental session is to address some of the gaps that we currently have in supporting students on the Peninsulas.

As we increase the diversity of our student body, we need to ensure that the people our students see at the front of our classrooms, in our offices, and in leadership positions increasingly reflect their own life experiences and aspirations.  

Last year, we initiated a multi-year effort to hire and advance faculty who have demonstrated experience cultivating diverse and inclusive classroom and departmental environments.  The early results of this effort are encouraging: Of those faculty hired last year, nearly 40% identified as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority, and 70% were women.

We need to demonstrate sustained effort in increasing faculty diversity at Western and we need to ensure that these kinds of hiring practices become more widespread across our academic enterprise. 

To that end, last year we also added two important positions on our main campus including a LGBTQ+ Director and a Tribal Liaison leader, and we expect to soon hire a new Title IX Officer to complement expanded investigative resources in the Office of Equal Opportunity.  We expect that, in particular, the Tribal Liaison position will help us engage more intentionally with the Tribal nations on the Peninsulas to better understand and address their education needs.

Advancing goals like access and success requires a sense of urgency.  This isn’t an urgent crisis in the traditional sense; it is not hastened by a state budget being slashed or a precipitous drop in enrollments.  It is rather an urgency of opportunities, which in many ways is more important and also more difficult to create and sustain.  I often talk about the moral imperative that underlies our strategic plan: The moral imperative to expand access and increase success, particularly for those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds; and the moral imperative to help the people of Washington State, who support our institution, compete for their share of the tremendous economic opportunities in our region and globally.  Quite simply, we have a moral imperative that requires a sense of collective urgency, because together we have the talent, brainpower, and skills to change people’s lives and lift up communities for the better. 

As the late Senator John McCain said, “Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause greater than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”

We have set aspirational goals for ourselves, including expansion on the Peninsulas.  This will require a lot of work and a can-do attitude, and engagement from outside the campus system to ensure that we are not insulating ourselves from the communities we are trying to serve.

Central to all of this work is a commitment to preserve the values that are core to Western: integrity, responsibility, and accountability; commitment to equity and justice, and respect for the rights and dignity of all; commitment to student success; and commitment to the pursuit of excellence.  As we expand beyond Bellingham, the culture at Western will evolve and change, as it should, if we are going to build a more diverse and inclusive university.

If we envision the future as a universe of possibilities and continue to pursue a vision that is positively impactful for our shared community, for society as a whole, and higher than any of us, then I’m confident that we will end up in a better place on the other side of the journey.

I hope this evening is the first of many such occasions in which we’ll have the opportunity to update you on progress, successes and – yes, even challenges – at Western, and importantly, we want to use this opportunity to address your questions and to learn from you where we can improve our partnership in creating the kind of future that we all envision for our vibrant community and our strong and growing economy.

I thank you for the ongoing support and for the many partnerships that we enjoy in Poulsbo, throughout Kitsap County and the entire Peninsulas region.  We are a better institution, in many ways, because of you. 

With that, I’d be happy to answer questions and hear your thoughts.