Year End Message to the Western Community

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Dear WWU Faculty & Staff,

In a year that has been unlike any other we have ever experienced, I am very grateful for how our students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters have responded. 

We managed the human, social and economic dimensions of the past year quite well and we delivered on our mission as best as we could, within the constraints that we faced over the course of the year.  With COVID cases falling across the country and vaccinations increasing, we are emerging with renewed purpose, and with a strategy that embraces the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural dynamism of our world and takes on the critical challenges of tomorrow. 

I am encouraged by the progress we made during a very trying year, and I have no doubt that our efforts will only accelerate in the coming year.  There are already good signs: our legislative support on operations and capital; continued work on important ADEI initiatives; fundraising success for the new Kaiser Borsari Hall to house expanded electrical engineering, computer science and energy science programs and particularly our commitment to make it a net zero energy facility; and the most recent work by the Provost’s Office to create an Institute of Sustainability that will comprehensively focus Western’s sustainability efforts in the three essential areas of education, co-curricular activities and operations. 

I’m particularly grateful to our Admissions, Enrollment Management, Financial Aid, and Marketing teams for the efforts to strengthen our enrollment picture for fall 2021.  While comparisons to the prior year are the natural starting point for analysis, fall 2020 was an outlier. And so, we have been closely watching both the comparisons to Fall 2020 and to Fall 2019, and I’m very pleased to see that applications, admits and confirmations for new first-year students are comparable to Fall 2019.  That is not a claim that many of our peers in the state can make. 

In addition to focusing on in-state enrollments, we are building greater brand awareness in out-of-state markets since the launch of our non-resident digital marketing efforts in fall 2019, and these efforts are producing positive results.  The Honors Program has experienced a banner recruitment year, and there are early signs that Honors will have stronger diversity in its cohort in Fall 2021.  Graduate programs, too, are getting many more applications for admission than in recent years., with confirmations up by nearly 23% compared to last year. 

All of this matters because state policy makers passed an expenditure budget, including new items such as compensation, which is only partially funded by state appropriations; the remainder must come through tuition revenue. 

As we close out this very unusual year and get ready for a new academic year, I’ve been reflecting about Western as a complex, organic organization.  We can all recount numerous initiatives and activities that we have undertaken over the past year.  But what matters is our overall movement, in a holistic sense, relative to where we have been and to the future we envision.

Even in the midst of the health pandemic, I have continued to remind myself and others that our direction for forward movement is driven by our values and the vision that we articulated in our strategic plan in 2018.  Of course, where we focus our energies—that is, our more immediate priorities—need to be adapted with changes in the external environment, be it a health pandemic or a social imperative.

I wish I had a magic wand whereby I, together with our shared governance structure, could create a utopian environment that would work for every member of our community.  Short of that, our strategic plan was based on the assumptions that we both respect tradition and at the same time challenge it, and that we re-envision Western to be responsive to current and evolving needs of our state and our society.  As we move forward, change involves a slow progression in some areas and more of a step-function change in other dimensions.

It is healthy when people speak out about things that are not working for them, because as I have often said, it is hard to solve a problem when we have no knowledge about it.  And this remote year was no exception.  In fact, in some ways, I was able to connect with more members of our community and learned more from you than I would have been able to do in person.

At the end of the day, we are a mission-driven community that puts people first.  I am appreciative that our students continue to remind us of the changes we need to make and hold us accountable for walking our talk.  I am appreciative of the work that our faculty and staff undertake in academic colleges, centers and institutes, and the often-unseen work in student affairs and other support divisions.  That work and its alignment with broad University goals, priorities and actions is what drives our forward progress. 

As we continue our work, we need to place more emphasis on our thought processes and mental models regarding issues that impact our individual and collective presence on campus and in our communities, from racial trauma and mental health to institutional culture.  Unfortunately, the social and political dynamics of the past few years have intensified an environment where dehumanization of people, disrespect and even outright hostility to people or certain groups of people show up in our everyday interactions in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  An important element of our climate and culture work is our ability to see humanity in ourselves and others, and above all to ensure that we consciously work to uplift others.

We also need to place more emphasis on examining underlying systems and structures.  The work of groups like the Bias Response Team and the Structural Equity Team will be invaluable in this regard.  As one example, the Structural Equity Committee, constituted at the start of this academic year, has been using an equity lens to examine our budget processes, and I look forward to their report in the next couple of weeks.

I remain committed to Western’s priorities of advancing inclusive student success, increasing Washington impact, and enhancing academic excellence—they were relevant before the pandemic and they are even more relevant now, and I look forward to working with all of you to advance them with even more focus, vigor and energy as we emerge from the global health pandemic.

With gratitude,