Since coming to Western three years ago I have talked about the potential of this wonderful institution, the strong foundations of excellence we have to build upon, and the remarkable opportunities we have to accelerate positive change for our students, the people of Washington, and the world.
Today, more than ever, I believe in the mission and values of Western, which are so well captured in the themes and goals of the strategic plan, in the passion of our students, and in the deep personal commitment of our faculty and staff.
But today, rather than talking about our potential, I am going to talk about what it will take to realize that potential. I am going to talk about some of our practices and habits of thought that stand in the way of achieving that potential and which act as a barrier to our forward progress.
Last year, in addition to the considerable work of running this complex university, you were engaged in the creation of a strategic plan and a related process we called “resource modeling,” to estimate what it would cost to actually achieve the strategic plan. We now have a rough roadmap of milestones by which to measure our success, and a north star to tell us what success looks like—a huge accomplishment. But now the real hard work begins—the hard work of advancing our priorities beyond plans; of engaging with the world in ways we’ve only talked about; and of challenging those aspects of “the Western Way” that have become obstacles to advancing our shared vision of our future.
What does that future look like? I am convinced that the successful universities of tomorrow are not going to be judged by national and international rankings. Rather their success will be based on how effectively they can advance inclusive access and success and how effectively they can contribute to understanding and resolving the big challenges facing our society. As more people question the value of a college education, and public funding for public higher education declines, what successful universities of our kind will have in common is a laser focus on helping people achieve their potential and applying our strengths to solve the big social, economic, and environmental problems facing society.
Earlier this summer Uzma and I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Botswana, where we joined some friends engaged in community development and women’s health care work. The visit reinforced two of my beliefs. First, that education is critical to advancing communities around the globe. While education is important for all people, it is especially important for women, as it leads to their empowerment, impacting not just themselves, but their children and subsequently future generations. And second, that living and interacting in another culture is one of the most enriching life experiences and helps us develop humility and understanding in new ways.
I came away from this experience more convinced than ever that we at Western need to take a much more expansive view of educational access. All humans are endowed with potential and ability to excel, and education is the most powerful means to actualize that potential. We need to look beyond our traditional access borders, from the student demographics we have traditionally attracted to Western and our Bellingham geography, to our lack of reach beyond the State of Washington. We need to make sure that we provide learners access to Western’s educational programs and, since the new generations of students are coming to us with much more varied backgrounds than we have historically attracted to Western, we need to be open to new methods and forms of teaching and learning, and to reaching out to those for whom coming to Bellingham is not an option.
I have heard in subtle, and sometimes in not-so-subtle ways, that expanding access will compromise our high-quality educational model. I think this assumption under-estimates the intellectual ability and capacity of the more diverse student body we are attracting to Western. I think it also underestimates what we at Western are each capable of individually, and as an institution. Providing high-quality education as a resident campus will continue to be at the core of our mission. What I refuse to believe is that the distinctive excellence of a Western education can only be achieved with certain student demographics or with a four-year residential stay in Bellingham. The future of work, and education, will not be based on a “one and done” set of educational experiences that all happen prior to entering a single career. It will involve lifelong learning and continuous professional and personal development. Our future success also lies in our ability to deliver education to different audiences and in different modalities, and helping our students become high-achieving, because they enrolled at Western.
Our visit to Botswana also reaffirmed my belief in the importance of having more international students on our campus and in creating new opportunities for our U.S. students to spend time in other cultures. The current anti-immigrant rhetoric at the national level has slowed Western’s progress on attracting international students, not so much because they don’t want to come, as that it has become more difficult for them to get visas to study here. I know that this too shall pass! We need to be patient and steadfast and use the time to help shape how Western is perceived in selected markets across the globe. We are also working to make international experiences more accessible for Western students. A $10 million Student Success Fundraising Initiative launched last spring by the Western Foundation is an important step toward accomplishing this goal.
Earlier I spoke of the need to challenge some of our past assumptions in order to achieve our aspirations. Perhaps the most critical of these revolve around our historical revenue model, based on state funding and resident tuition. We have long assumed that these are and must always be the main sources of revenue we use to advance our goals and, failing that, to at least maintain the institution where it is.
State funding for higher education has been declining for decades, and in those places where it has been strong, the money has been largely directed toward making college more affordable for students (like the full funding of the Washington College Grant, formerly known as the State Need Grant). Making education more affordable is important, but it ultimately only provides value to our students and the state if complemented by investments in program capacity and educational quality.
Given these realities it would be naïve-bordering-on-irresponsible to continue thinking that we will be able to move the needle on our strategic plan goals in a realistic time frame—or even maintain the status quo—with state funding and in-state tuition as the sole sources of revenue. One is slow to mature, subject to state revenues, and does not necessarily encompass all our needs and priorities; the other is limited by the elasticity of demand and our commitment to providing affordable access to the people of Washington. We cannot move fast enough, or big enough, on the things that matter to us, if we continue putting all of our eggs in these baskets.
Those are some of the reasons we undertook the “resource modeling” exercise last year. The main goal was to answer two questions:
- How much additional money do we need, on a recurring basis, to cover the operations of the university as it currently exists? Implicit in this question is the admission that we are underfunded in certain areas.
- How much additional money do we need, on a recurring basis, to actually move the needle on the strategic plan goals we set for ourselves?
The resource modeling exercise showed that six years out we need an additional $20 to $25 million annually to bridge the current operational gap and have the resources to advance our strategic plan. And, that is after building-in inflationary increases in state subsidy and resident undergraduate tuition.
The upshot is that the historical budget model relying on state funding and in-state tuition will not deliver this additional resource base we need to advance our aspirations. The resource modeling exercise also showed that increasing Western’s enrollments by about 1,500 to 2,000 students over the same time period, with a disproportionate increase in non-resident students, will be an important strategy for diversification and revenue generation. This year, we will develop and execute an enrollment management plan that enables us to more intentionally articulate and meet our enrollment goals, in numbers, mix and diversity of the student body, inclusive of all sites where we offer academic programs.
I have heard concerns expressed about our commitment to Washingtonians were we to admit more non-resident students. At present, our student body consists of 87 percent resident students. So, a relatively small increase in non-resident students at Western will not result in a major shift in resident-to-non-resident student mix, nor will it compromise our commitments to serve the people of our state. Additionally, non-resident students add a dimension of cultural diversity from which our community will surely benefit.
It is not lost on me that growth brings its own challenges around capacity and space. The truth is, we are already facing challenges on space and capacity—and currently we have no ready source of revenue to build our way out. It is worth emphasizing that this is not really adding a new challenge so much as creating the opportunity that will lead us out of challenges we already have. It’s also important to note that not all of this growth has to happen on the main campus. We are fortunate that we can decide to enroll more students if we so choose; there are so many universities across our nation that are struggling with enrollments. In many ways, our “problem” is the “problem” many institutions would love to have!
In addition to implementing a thoughtful enrollment management plan, we need to look at additional revenue through new activities or by scaling successful activities, as long as they are consistent with the broader mission of the university. I have asked the Provost to work with the division of Outreach and Continuing Education and the university community to identify targeted non-degree programs that support need-based professional development, programs that we can deliver with the same high-quality characterizing our traditional academic programs.
To support our academic and enrollment goals, the Western Foundation has launched a student success initiative to raise $10 million for presidential scholarships to attract the best and the brightest to Western, for financial need-based scholarships, and for increasing education-abroad and faculty research opportunities. The Foundation is also working on raising $20 million for an electrical engineering/computer science building for which we have a legislative commitment for $45 million in the next biennium. Raising money for infrastructure is a new endeavor for our Foundation, but it is more critical than ever, considering the extremely long request, funding, design, bid and construction process that goes through the state. With building projects even more than academic or programmatic initiatives, our progress toward our strategic goals depends on looking beyond public funding.
Last fall we completed a feasibility study for expanding our presence on the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas, one of the most underserved parts of our state when it comes to higher education. Seeking legislative support in the 2020 supplemental session is an important first step toward expanding our programs on the Peninsulas. This also means thinking more expansively about our approach to budget requests than we have in the past. Occasionally, we may have to prioritize our programs on the Peninsulas or the programs we deliver in other locations ahead of our needs on the main campus. We need to remind ourselves that we are a “university” and, as such, we need to take a more expansive view of our mission, outcomes and resources.
I mentioned earlier that we need to increase our engagement in activities that matter to Washington and our global society. We are fortunate to have faculty engaged in active creative endeavors and research and scholarship programs. Over the past two years, we have hired about 85 new faculty who come from some of the best institutions in the country, with already proven research backgrounds. That not only benefits our already outstanding undergraduate teaching mission, it provides a springboard to create an equally worthy graduate enterprise, consistent with our university’s mission and size. During the academic year, Provost Carbajal will be working with academic deans and the dean of graduate school/vice provost for research on exploring how we intentionally expand our graduate programs over the next few years.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about our campus climate. During the 2018-19 academic year, the campus community was engaged in important and difficult conversations, as students questioned Western’s commitment to living up to our stated values of inclusive success, diversity and equity in our policies and practices. While appearing to challenge traditional authority structures, the student protest of the type we experienced in December 2018 serves as an important feedback mechanism and, if approached with understanding, opens communications and may lead to positive new possibilities. Perhaps, more important, it forces us to reflect on our ability to be accountable to those we serve. That of course doesn’t mean that those in positions of authority abdicate their responsibility or invite others to make decisions on issues that are in their purview. Nor does it mean they have to tolerate disrespect or bullying behavior. But it does mean that there needs to be a greater effort to listen, care and engage, demonstrate responsiveness to concerns, and explain what has been done in the past and how efforts will be made to address them going forward.
A common theme that emerged from our conversations with students is the need for swift, measurable, transparent progress. To that end, we have made progress on a number of initiatives, though more work needs to be done. We have developed a frequently updated Diversity, Equity and Inclusion website (www.wwu.edu/diversity) which includes a timeline that captures the major projects we have completed, those in progress, and those still to be addressed. I will not repeat the range of projects listed on the website, except to add that in addition to the university-level work captured on the web site, there is a great deal of work going on in academic colleges and departments and in the Division of Enrollment and Student Services.
As much as we are making progress, I believe our approach to issues of diversity, equity and inclusiveness seems to be transactional, though we are not unique among universities in this approach. Clearly articulating the issues that need to be addressed and dealing with each of them is important. At the same time, we need to understand that issues of culture and climate cannot be solved incrementally by advancing certain initiatives or by tinkering at the edges. The most difficult part of making this change involves a more transformative culture change, where values of respect, kindness and understanding are manifested in our conversations, relationships and practices across the university. This requires an ongoing dialogue with university constituents and a different way of thinking and engagement—one that acknowledges that we may not have the answers and that we will together engage in understanding and learning on this journey. This is an area we will be working on actively in the coming year and I will be seeking your participation in the process.
In closing, I would like to reiterate the three messages I hope that you would take away from my talk.
Working together we have developed an audacious strategic plan. Translating our plan into action will require:
- Embracing a more expansive definition of Western’s identity in relation to equity of access and equity of outcomes, while ensuring that we stay true to the high-quality education model that is the hallmark of Western.
- Expanding our financial resources, recognizing that progress on our mission and goals is dependent on the development and stewardship of financial resources.
- Enhancing our campus climate and culture as an important element in building a safe and engaged community to ensure sustained progress over time.
Uzma and I are honored to be part of the Western community. We are excited about what the future holds for Western and we look forward to working with you to advance our aspirations.