Year End Message to the Western Community: The Change Imperative

As we close the academic year, it is a time to celebrate our graduates, the most important contribution Western makes to our communities and our world.  It is also a time to be grateful – for the engaged students, faculty and staff that make Western such a special place.  And, it is a time to pause for reflection and learning from the year just passed.

Over the academic year, the campus community has engaged in important and difficult conversations, as students rightly questioned Western’s commitment to living up to our stated values of inclusive success, diversity and equity in our policies and practices, and respect for the dignity of all.  All college campuses—Western is no exception—are being challenged to improve their response to issues involving social justice, equity, and the safety and wellbeing of their communities.  More than ever, transformative culture change is an imperative in which we must engage more proactively.  And, while not easy, I believe disruptions of the status quo are a healthy step in creating systemic, transformative change.

As I have said before, the most difficult part of making this kind of change involves the myriad choices, behaviors, and interactions of the individuals that comprise a community.  While the University will continue to work on examining and revising its policies and practices to ensure they better express and protect our institutional values, it is on the interpersonal level of persuasion, dialogue, and authentically engaging others that genuine and lasting culture change comes about.  That requires another set of commitments: to recognize the value of differing identities and the shared humanity beneath them; to listen intentionally and seek a deeper understanding of others’ experiences and perspectives; and most importantly, to practice humility and empathy in the way we communicate with each other.

Over the past year I have developed a greater appreciation for the critical importance of meeting regularly with students of marginalized identities to listen to their unique concerns, and communicating clearly and often about the actions steps the University is taking to address them.  These conversations have led to the development of an action item timeline on Western’s regularly updated Diversity, Equity and Inclusion website that holds us accountable to measurable and timely outcomes. 

While we still have a long way to go toward achieving our equity and inclusion goals, I am encouraged that we are making progress, even when we may, at times, feel exhausted by the difficulty of these conversations and actions.  I want to extend my deepest gratitude to the students, administrative staff, and faculty who have spent countless hours engaged in these conversations.  I look forward to continuing the work throughout the summer, and when we are back in full swing in the fall, continuing the urgent work of creating an environment where we come together around our shared humanity, where we value the dignity of each individual and their unique perspectives, and where we can debate complex topics with respect and humility.

In addition to the important work in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, we have been engaged in several other areas important to advancing our institution.  While this message is not intended to provide an exhaustive list of all our work this year—and it certainly does not even attempt to capture the work done at the college/division/unit level—I would like to touch upon a few dimensions of our collective accomplishments.

  • The sweeping higher education bill, HB2158, approved in the recently concluded legislative session will enable more Washington residents to attend college for less money.  Starting in 2020, under the Washington College Grant program (formerly known as the State Need Grant), about 110,000 low-to median-income students across the state will qualify for help each year, including adults who never got a degree and want to go to school.  Other positive legislative outcomes for Western, in particular, include:

 

  • $3.4 million per biennium in STEM degree capacity expansion, which will help us increase Western’s pre-healthcare pathways, create a new B.S. in energy science and technology, and expand electrical engineering programs;
  • $60 million for construction funding for a new Interdisciplinary Sciences Building;
  • $2 million in pre-design and design funding for a new Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Building, with a legislative commitment to fund the construction in the next biennium (and a proviso that at least 10 percent of the total cost of the project be paid from private philanthropy).

 

  • State appropriations will also enable us to provide 3-4% compensation increases for faculty, professional staff and classified staff.  I would like to recognize the important and complementary roles of each employee group in advancing Western’s mission.

 

  • We expanded a number of initiatives targeted to improve retention and graduation rates, one of our key strategic priorities, especially for our first-generation students and those from historically marginalized groups.  Targeted advising and early intervention strategies, expansion of community-building First Year Interest Groups (FIGs) and the coordination of processes to remove institutional barriers are all showing positive trends for student retention and success. 

 

  • The President’s Advisory Committee on Institutional Resource Modeling completed a rigorous analysis and modeling process to better understand and articulate the nature of resources necessary to achieve the Strategic Plan’s goals and priorities.  You can read the final report and learn about the process here: https://provost.wwu.edu/resource-modeling.

 

  • We completed several capital renovation projects, including the Disability Access Center and Veteran Services for Students in the Wilson Library, Anatomy and Physiology labs in Carver, and a recording studio within the Performing Arts Center.  The final interior construction and finishes for the new Multicultural Student Center are on track to be completed this summer with a grand opening projected for this fall.

 

  • We established a new Office of Tribal Relations and hired Laural Ballew as Western’s inaugural Executive Director of American Indian/Alaska Native and First Nations Relations and Tribal Liaison to the President, with the goal to enhance Western’s relationships with our local and statewide tribal communities and ensure success of our Native American students.  A search to hire a Title IX Officer is expected to be completed by the end of summer 2019.

 

Following the recommendation of the Central Health and Safety Committee, passing of a 2018 Associated Student Referendum and support from a broader campus survey, Western will transition to being a smoke-free campus.  Starting in fall 2019, a task force will lead the process for the campus to become smoke-free, including developing appropriate policies and procedures and implementing an educational and awareness campaign, including resources for those who wish to quit.

Finally, I want to thank our students who remind us never to be complacent, to always strive for a better tomorrow and who make this such a dynamic place to learn, work and live.  And to my valued colleagues across the University: thank you for your enduring commitment and everything you contribute to the University’s mission of education and learning, research and creative activity, and service and outreach.

I wish you all a restful and productive summer!

Sincerely,

Sabah