Western Washington University Faculty & Staff Convocation Address
Good morning, and welcome to the new school year. I am grateful that we are back on campus after working remotely for the past year-and-a-half. Thank you being here today, both those of you here in person and those who are tuning in virtually.
I’d like to start by acknowledging that we gather today on the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish Peoples, who have lived in the Salish Sea basin, all throughout the San Juan Islands and the North Cascades watershed from time immemorial. Please join me in expressing our deepest respect and gratitude to our Indigenous neighbors for their enduring care and protection of our shared lands and waterways.
When I spoke to you last year—that is, virtually—I talked about “navigating beyond pandemics.” There was hope and optimism as the vaccine roll out accelerated last spring and our communities started to open up to more social interactions and economic activity. I was looking ahead to a year where we would be able to do a reset, if you will, and while it was too early to say that we could safely put the pandemic behind us, we were feeling better about getting to a “new normal.”
Little did we know at the time that today we would be dealing with the new, highly contagious delta variant. The recent sharp increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have understandably made us anxious and frustrated, especially since this spike could have been avoided with more people choosing to become vaccinated. And while the rate of vaccination has recently picked up in our state, with the fully vaccinated population 12 and up nearing 70% (68.1% as of Sept 13), nationwide that number is only nearing 55 percent (54.7% as of Sept 15).
So, that is the backdrop for another year ahead of us. Before I get into those details, let me first say that Uzma and I could not be more proud of your work and the extraordinary efforts you have undertaken to ensure a safe campus and to deliver on the mission of Western. This work has gone on at a sustained pace since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. I have heard repeatedly from many people outside the institution, from parents to legislators, who have told me that the faculty and staff of Western have stood out in their handling of this crisis. This has been a year-and-a-half like no other in our lives. You have risen to the occasion, and I want you to know that I see you, and others see us, as truly exemplary.
We rapidly pivoted to providing education and services remotely, overcoming significant challenges related to technology and information security, physical space, and quality of delivery and outcomes. Many of you have worked long hours to ensure that we protect our students and employees. Others have provided critical support services remotely to serve our community, particularly vulnerable groups who needed those services even more under the impact of the pandemic. Our faculty successfully delivered education remotely in less than optimal circumstances. And, along the way, we moved obstacles that some thought were immovable—sometimes in shockingly short order—to serve our students, and adapt to the circumstances. That not only fills me with pride for what we have done, but confidence for what we can do in the future—the positive changes we can make, and need to make—if we have the will and the motivation.
As I have reflected on the events of the past 18 months, the question that has been on my mind is: What does the world and the University’s mission require of us now?
Uzma and I were recently talking about the notion of an Adversity quotient—the ability to remain coherent and balanced during adversity and difficult periods in life, and to maintain a sense of purpose—as an important determinant of human resilience and success. I believe the same holds true for organizations. Our ability, as a university community, to maintain a focus on our values and priorities is critical in delivering on our mission, while adapting to ever-changing health and social upheaval circumstances, and returning even more strong in our resolve and purpose. In dealing with the pandemic, we have also demonstrated our ability to apply key principles that make organizations more resilient and enable them to handle adversity effectively: we were flexible and we tried new ways to adapt to a continually changing environment.
It is also humbling and important to be reminded that we are not an island in and of ourselves. We are part of a bigger community in our region and state and, dare I say, an increasingly interconnected, interdependent global society. I have been struck by the global nature of recent events and their equally global impact.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and now its delta variant, originated in different parts of the world, but spread like wildfire across the globe, even in countries that suspended all travel in- and out- of their borders. Countries that have a high vaccination rate have continued to struggle with new waves of the pandemic, as people inevitably move across countries and communities. We truly live in a global society and our salvation now depends more than ever on the salvation of those around us.
This summer we have experienced unprecedented triple digit temperatures in the Northwest, not to mention forest fires that are not just a regular summer fixture but an increasingly year-round phenomenon across the western U.S. and Canada. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that July was the hottest month on record in 142 years of record keeping. Global climate change is causing severe and frequent heat waves, droughts, floods, and other new weather patterns throughout the world.
We witnessed social upheaval driven by racial injustice in our society and disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color. Beyond our boundaries, social unrest increased in several countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, compounded by COVID-19 and increasing economic inequalities, resulting in massive movements of refugees and desperate immigrants.
We cannot afford anymore to think about these issues as someone else’s problem, or as being localized to certain areas. While local action is needed and important, addressing climate change, social justice, and political instability requires a global humanity-centered, coordinated approach.
All of these compounding crises are enough to make us give up and retreat from the world. But that’s not who we are. We are privileged to be in education, and we have a powerful role to play as part of the solution. We have the responsibility and the opportunity to bring hope to the communities we serve, to open young minds who come to us from all over the state and beyond, and to engage in creative thinking and work that may lead to new approaches to complex societal issues.
The people of our state and country need us more than ever. Far from being powerless or a victim of forces beyond our control, higher education is one of the most powerful, direct mechanisms to drive economic opportunity for individuals and communities, to change social attitudes and systems, to model respectful and evidence-based communication, and ultimately to create engaged citizens. We have the responsibility and the power to create a better world, not by retreating within ourselves, but by increasing our engagement with the public.
This fall, our returning students will need us, and we will need each other, to recover our community life together. That will take courage, empathy, vulnerability; and a willingness to listen and learn rather than judge. We have all been through a lot this past year—some more than others—but recovering our sense of community and connectedness is critical to what Western is about, and to our individual healing and wellbeing too. We have discovered that there are many valuable ways that we can do our work and deliver education remotely, but let’s remember that we are strongest when we are together, teaching and working in community with others. Our presence matters to our students and your presence matters to your colleagues, to me, to Western.
That’s not to say that we will ever compromise your safety and wellbeing and that of our students. I have said often, and I will repeat: my first responsibility as the university president is to keep everyone safe, not just from the COVID-19 pandemic, but also from all forms of hatred and discrimination. That’s a responsibility I share with each of you. Just like last year, our decisions on active on-campus engagement will be driven by health markers and guidance from CDC and local and state health authorities. At the same time, I expect that each of us will play our part in getting vaccinated and following masking and other health directives so we can continue to safely operate the university.
In addition, we are fully committed to urgently advancing our work in the Accessibility, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion realm and to providing support services to students from diverse backgrounds as we work to build and sustain a more caring, understanding, and resilient community.
Despite the challenges resulting from the pandemic, working together we were able to continue to deliver on our commitments quite effectively last year and we were able to produce some remarkable results for the citizens of our state. I have shared many of those activities and outcomes throughout the year and several are detailed on our web pages, including those for the Strategic Plan and on the institution’s ADEI website.
I have no doubt that we will only accelerate our work in this academic year. I am excited about several positive developments: enrollments for fall 2021 are approaching pre-pandemic levels; we are witnessing increased interest in graduate programs and a strong applicant pool for the Honors Program; we will soon start the search for a Chief Diversity Officer and Executive Director of the new Office of Equity; wonderful new spaces on campus are opening up including Alma Clark Glass residence hall this month and the Interdisciplinary Science building in winter; and we are now beginning the design and construction process for the region’s first net zero energy/zero carbon building that will house Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, and Energy Studies programs, and work is also underway on the long-awaited “House of Healing” Longhouse.
I started my comments with the question “what does the world need from us now?” and I would like to conclude by cycling back to it in the context of our strategic plan and its priorities.
The development of our 2018-2025 strategic plan was driven by two important considerations: an economic imperative based on the state’s 70 percent education attainment goal and projected workforce needs, and a moral imperative that we need to increase access and success and eliminate opportunity and achievement gaps, particularly for historically under-represented student populations. Those imperatives are even more urgent today than they were in 2018.
As such, there is an even greater urgency to focus on our strategic plan priorities, reflected in the three themes of advancing inclusive student success, increasing our impact in Washington and beyond, and enhancing academic excellence. We see ever-widening disparities in educational opportunities, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the disproportionate impact on communities of color. It underscores the importance of the work we have undertaken with respect to equity of access and equity of outcomes. The societal challenges I spoke of earlier emphasize the need for faculty research, outreach, and collaborative work with our partners, communities, and students. And, perhaps most importantly, the current external environment underscores our commitment to creating a just, welcoming, and inclusive community, and the need for civic engagement on important socio-economic issues.
As we start the new academic year, it is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to our values, mission, and priorities. Make no mistake: we have work to do, important work, and lots of it.
The confluence of a health pandemic and multiple instances of racial injustice and civic unrest raised a lot of questions about the traditional ways of doing things in higher education. We need to redouble our efforts to better understand barriers to success for different students and develop a more cohesive, multi-pronged strategy to increase student persistence and success. We simply must be more mindful of students’ circumstances and meet them where they are. Thankfully, this is the work that we are passionate about.
Let’s also preserve and build on the lessons we learned from the pandemic, not so we can get back to where we were, but to approach our work in a more urgent, innovative way. We have, and are soon going to have, new leadership in key positions in the institution. This creates opportunities for new dialogues and collaborations, new strategies to advance our priorities, and new ways to ensure that the skills and talents of all individuals at Western are valued, developed, and utilized to the fullest.
I am confident about our prospects and our future. Fulfilling the vision articulated in our strategic plan has to involve everyone. As we emerge from the pandemic, I know we will be challenged in new ways and new opportunities will emerge as well. I also know that I am working with an incredible team of faculty and staff who will respond to those challenges and opportunities with dedication, confidence, and ingenuity. I am proud to partner with you in this journey.
I wish you all the very best for the academic year.