President Dobkin Speaks at Utah Women in Higher Education Network Conference
April 14, 2021
SALT LAKE CITY – President Beth Dobkin was a guest speaker at the 2021 Utah Women in Higher Education
Network (UWHEN) Conference. Dobkin appeared on the presidents panel with leaders from
Utah Valley University, Weber State, and Dixie State. The panel was moderated by Westminster
provost Debbie Tahmassebi, and Snow College provost Melanie Jenkins.
Jenkins: “In what ways have you been able to align your personal values with your work?”
Dobkin: “I think it's very important to have a sense of purpose … [that's] greater than myself. And it's one of the reasons that I'm in higher education. Part of that is belief in the power of human potential and seeing education as being liberating. I've always been drawn to institutions that align (with these values) as much as possible... you're not likely to have perfect alignment with the organization you work for.... But for me, those institutions need to value and work for greater equity. And they need to connect core values of pursuing truth, thinking freely, cultivating wisdom, with a deep pragmatism.... Westminster appealed to me right from the start, because this is a place that connects those kinds of liberal learning values with action, having positive impact. Knowing that the institution is going to reflect some of those values that have really driven me is super important.... I think it's really important as emerging leaders, aspiring leaders, and really anyone for that matter, to figure out what's non-negotiable. And by that, I mean, what would cause you to walk away before you're in that situation where you're not sure? Because that's where you decide whether the alignment is sufficient. Is the alignment good enough to get me through the rough spots? [Do] I have enough shared sense of purpose? What is non-negotiable? What will I walk away from? Because there will be those moments. There will be those moments where the alignment isn't perfect. And thinking about that in advance will really help you get through those situations.
Tahmassebi: What do you see as the future of higher education in the post-pandemic world?
Dobkin: “I think that there's a lot of talk about greater emphasis on creativity, collaboration, resilience, flexibility, all those things. Just this morning we were talking about students moving from rolling over in bed in their pajamas and being in class, versus actually getting dressed and going somewhere, and how that's going to be a transition. [But]… We've learned a lot about the use of technology to facilitate new ways of learning and how that has accelerated a lot of trends.... I think it's also accelerated a trend of equating job training with education, which I think we have to be really careful about. The pandemic has left us with a deep sense of loss regarding human connection.... there's going to be a growing understanding that we've actually compromised a bit in terms of connection and human development. Before the pandemic, there was already, what some people call an epidemic of [social] isolation and loneliness, and the pandemic has intensified that. So we're going to need to address, in higher education, those developmental learning needs along with providing the discrete skill sets that come with job training, because both are critical. We need to be preparing people for career clusters, not just jobs. And we need to be able to integrate courses, and certificates, and degree programs [in ways] that will serve some of those needs of identity, connection, and the [search for] purpose in adulthood.... We just talked about aligning personal values and having a sense of purpose. I think our students are looking for those things too. And then they were much harder to acquire during a pandemic. The hunger is going to be greater for that post pandemic. And so to the extent that we can integrate these things, “squish” them together, preserve some flexibility, and add ability and creativity, those are all going to be super important. And we'll need to really do that, both in-person, as well as online, so we can bring back some of that essential human development that ... we've lost over the last year.”
Tahmassebi: Are college presidents truly public intellectuals and if so, in what ways?
Dobkin: “Well, I think some college and university presidents are. It's part of that risk taking, but I think it's also an obligation of the role. What you do with the privilege you have being in this kind of position? We have an obligation to be thought leaders and to use what we know as educators and scholars to advance knowledge and also to advance discussion about contemporary issues.... it gets increasingly difficult, I think, for college and university presidents to act as public intellectuals, because their roles have become increasingly politicized... Independent thought, constructive debate, civic actions, are increasingly devalued and then disconnected from higher education. We really can't afford to let that happen. It affects the quality of public discussion about issues that matter. It diminishes the importance of higher education as essential to a healthy, thriving democracy. And so to me, this is an important question because we really can't afford to shy away from it.... When college and university presidents are willing to step up and play these kinds of roles, it elevates all of higher education and really shows people the power and the potential of learning, and of thought and action...”
Tahmassebi: What have you learned about yourself and others in 2020 and how has it changed how you lead?
Dobkin: “I have been really impressed by the energy and innovation that people have brought to respond to the challenge of the pandemic.... The resilience that people brought has been greater than I imagined. The ability to … rethink how we do our work, when we do our work. Learning from students to rethink some of the time-honored traditions of things like penalties for late work.... Learning how to accommodate a broader set of needs through a virtual environment is compelling, and it can be done... in ways that still retain some of those values ... of human connection and collaboration.... I still value the kind of creative conversations that happen spontaneously when you're not expecting to meet people, and we need to intentionally, it seems paradoxical, but we need to intentionally create places where people can run into each other. Literally. At the same time, there are now openings for ... bringing people together like this, where they might not otherwise be able to engage and interact [made possible by] virtual environments. So … one of the bigger learnings to take away is the ability of integrating [in-person and virtual experiences], and huge admiration for the innovation and resilience of the members of our community.”
Westminster College is a chapter member of UWHEN, whose mission is to advance women’s leadership on higher education campuses. UWHEN is Utah’s affiliate to the American Council on Education Women’s Network.
Westminster is a private, independent, and comprehensive college in Salt Lake City, Utah. Students experience the liberal arts blended with professional programs in an atmosphere dedicated to civic engagement. With the goal of enabling its graduates to live vibrant, just, and successful lives, Westminster provides transformational learning experiences for both undergraduate and graduate students in a truly student-centered environment. Faculty focus on teaching, learning, and developing distinctive, innovative programs, while students thrive on Westminster’s urban Sugar House campus within minutes of the Rocky Mountains.