Breakfast Address to Westminster Community
April 8, 2019
Welcome, and good morning. Thank you for sharing time with me today.
Right around this time last year, I made my first visit to the Westminster campus. I met with faculty, staff, and students, and began learning about the hopes, challenges, and passions of the people here. In my first breakfast address, I shared some initial thoughts about the strengths of the college. The region is growing, bringing with it an increasingly rich diversity of people. The location of the college is stunning and calls for understanding both the physical environment and our role in it. The campus has capacity for growth while retaining its intimacy and sense of community. The faculty have a stellar reputation for their commitment to student learning, and the college as a whole has embraced inclusive excellence. The staff are passionate about our students, invested in their own professional development, and committed to making Westminster the best possible workplace.
Over the course of this year, I’ve attended meetings, performances, club activities, athletic contests, and classes. I’ve been to new staff orientations; Walkways to Westminster and Legacy Scholar events; Alumni Board meetings; and, most recently, Admitted Student Day. I am truly impressed by the caliber of teaching, the engagement of faculty and students in scholarship and experiential learning, and the ethic of care extended by our faculty, staff, and student-affairs professionals. At every off-campus engagement, from the Rotary Club to alumni events, my impressions about the brilliance of our students and the achievements of our graduates are validated by external constituents. I’ve made strong connections with benefactors who are impressed by our current trajectory, such as Ginger Gore Giovale, who recently pledged $2 million for operations of the Honors College. Our faculty, staff, and students continue to receive the highest accolades, such as Camille Stanley, who was just awarded our second student Fulbright in Westminster’s history. We have our first national Truman scholar, Kenzie Campbell. Kenzie is one of 62 students selected for a $30,000 scholarship toward graduate school and preparation for a career in public service leadership. These achievements are possible in part due to the mentorship and support of colleagues like Alicia Cunningham-Bryant.
These are just a few of the impressive and recent accomplishments focused on our students. We continue to bring new people into our community, consistent with institutional needs and priorities. Our strength and clarity of purpose, combined with our unrealized potential, is enabling us to attract top talent in key leadership positions at the college. Thank you to everyone who has been, and continues to be, deeply involved in recruiting and interviewing candidates for our open positions. We’ve already appointed experienced, impressive leaders in our provost and vice president for enrollment and are poised to do the same in our advancement and CIO searches. We do have one cabinet-level individual who is on a second successful interim appointment and has years of relevant and impressive experience enhancing the lives of Westminster students. Because of that, we will not be conducting a search for vice president of student affairs. I’m proud to announce that Karnell McConnell-Black has accepted my offer of appointment. This means that, by the end of the month, our cabinet-level searches should be complete.
We will have a large cabinet, the membership of which, if you’re truly curious, is always listed on our website. The cabinet is large not because we’ve added administrative positions; we haven’t. Rather, I’m interested in the highest level of coordination and collaboration among senior administrators, and I want to facilitate communication between, among, and from us all. I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish in this configuration.
We’ve been achieving great things while also addressing some difficult realities about our budget. As the academic year moved on, it became apparent that we needed to take a hard look at the way we’ve been balancing our budget for the past several years, which simply isn’t sustainable. This led to the sessions on budget realities in January and extensive conversations in the Planning and Priorities Committee and cabinet, where we worked through every possible budget scenario that your faculty and staff representatives could imagine, and then sent a budget based on those discussions and presentations to the board of trustees. They approved it, but not without some reservations. This work was particularly hard for the faculty and staff representatives on the Planning and Priorities Committee, who participated extensively in deliberations, weighed all options brought to the table, and endorsed the budget strategy and communications moving forward while lacking control over the full implementation of those recommendations. This division of responsibility is entirely appropriate, if difficult. And although I’ve been told that our communication as a cabinet has improved in clarity and openness, I know we can, and will, continue to do better as a cabinet with our consultation and outreach. We’ll be continuing to monitor our revenues and expenses next month, over the summer, and into the fall to make sure we’re staying on track.
The urgency of the past year has led to accelerations in processes, decisions, and personnel transitions. Comings and goings, reorganizations, and position redefinitions happen routinely in the life of a college, but the speed of change this past year may have felt unsettling. For instance, when someone with whom we are close leaves, we might worry that what makes us special has gone.
There’s certainly something powerful about the personal relationships that can form at a place like Westminster. At the same time, whatever specialness an individual contributes to the college needs to be institutionalized in our practices or it won’t be sustained. The greatest tribute we can pay to colleagues is to establish a foundation that continues to support student success even after they’ve departed.
For instance, think, for a moment, about the extensive work done this last year on our campus culture, and all of the initiatives, professional development, and planning. In the midst of this, Marco Barker left for a fantastic personal and professional opportunity, but only after laying a groundwork of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts that we all must carry forward. Units across campus completed priorities and action items related to curricular and co-curricular experiences; inclusion-centered policies, leadership, and assessment; opportunities for professional learning; and aligning policies and practices to support the recruitment, enrollment, and retention of diverse students and employees. This work must go on. Chris Davids, our faculty fellow, continues his impressive leadership of professional development activities and community events. Tamara Stevenson will lend her wisdom, experience, and leadership as interim chief diversity officer.
Our decision-making has increasingly aligned with our core purpose of educating students. This clarity of purpose, of putting students first, can be a great source of satisfaction if it’s directly connected to our work. I’m reminded of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, in which he talks about workplace satisfaction coming from our desires for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Most people are happiest when they can be self-directed and get increasingly better at their work. Those skills and self-direction should have purpose, be aligned with work that is meaningful, important, and in our case, in service of our students. Each one of us is connected to that purpose in some way, and every decision we make should be guided by it. Caring for students sometimes means holding to our principles and policies rather than bending them based on relationships. For instance, in admissions, it has meant not waiving application requirements in pursuit of higher headcounts, because the student who hasn’t completed an application is less likely to come, and if here, less likely to stay. It has meant combining course sections and limiting off-block scheduling, so students may take the courses they need at the times they need them. Efforts like these help make Westminster ever more student focused.
While we’ve been taking intentional steps to improve the student experience now, we’ve also been laying the groundwork for our path forward. This year I’ve asked all of us to look at things differently, answer new questions, assume increased responsibility, and assess our readiness for change. We’ve done an IT stress test, which identified a strong culture of service, dedication, and teamwork among our IS professionals and validated their desire to move beyond fixing things that are broken, to coordinating information technology strategy across campus. We’ve done zero-based budget exercises in some administrative units, leading, for instance, our student affairs professionals to assess all of their programs for “student readiness.” We’ve conducted a gap analysis and financial systems review, which will help us prioritize infrastructure and facility needs, coordinate our financial modeling, and help guide long-term strategies in fundraising. We are building data tools that will help us better predict student enrollment trends and academic program costs. In August, faculty and staff leaders will have access to an academic portfolio system that will help them evaluate potential new programs based on our mission and values, student demands, employment opportunities, competitor institutions, and current and potential markets. We will be able to make informed decisions about academic program opportunities, ones that build on our strengths as an inclusive, innovative, and interactive learning community and which bring the foundations of a liberal arts education to life in varied creative and professional contexts.
After the August workshop, and at the beginning of the academic term, we will begin an intense and expedited strategic planning effort, timed to coincide with the numerous accreditation efforts that will be underway, and built on the data gathered and assessments done this past year. I’ll share more details about this workshop before the spring term is over. As the fall academic term begins, I’ll comprise a Strategic Planning Task Force that includes current and immediate past members of the Planning and Priorities Committee. This task force will make recommendations to the cabinet regarding strategic directions no later than December 20, 2019. In January, drafts of the plan will be circulated for community comment before being presented to the board of trustees. The primary goal of the plan must be to identify ways to generate sufficient resources that enable us to deliver and sustain the high-quality educational experience that our students need and deserve.
I realize that this isn’t a traditional strategic planning process, with months of town hall meetings, butcher-block paper and sticky notes, and wish lists of every opportunity that seems attractive. We’ve been down that road before at Westminster, and I’ve heard that our community is perhaps ready for a different approach. I’m assuming we agree that, like almost every higher education institution, we want to build on our best traditions and practices while looking to the future. I’m taking for granted we want the things that most universities these days put in every strategic plan: faculty excellence in teaching and scholarship; robust student enrollment; greater student success; recruitment and retention of diverse students, staff, and faculty; more fundraising; and modern, safe, beautiful facilities. I will ask this task force to focus on enhancing the student experience in ways that attract more of them to our intense, interactive, inclusive learning community, and prepares them to be aspiring leaders and engaged citizens.
In my inaugural address, I said we will need “to invest in our students with scholarships that promote access, and invest in faculty as they stretch disciplinary boundaries, integrate new technologies, facilitate difficult classroom dialogues, and collaborate with students and each other. We will need to explore more robust pathways to a Westminster education, not only from transfer initiatives, but also through educational and corporate partnerships, programming for parents and families, summer activities, and community outreach. We will need greater integration of data literacy in our curriculum, data analytics in our decisions, and technological advancements in service of our students. We will need to attract a large and diverse enough student population to support creative collisions and collaborations; to build a performing arts addition that allows greater artistic and physical exploration; to increase engagement with regional businesses and nonprofit organizations where students can practice, explore, fail, and learn to lead.”
I still believe we must do these things and that they should inform our next strategic plan. At the same time, people here have practically begged for things we won’t do, and I appreciate that. We won’t be rebranding again, or creating new campuses, or building out new online degree programs, or hiring staff on “soft” funding, or starting new programs without “sunset” provisions, or supporting initiatives that do not measurably contribute to the recruitment and retention of students.
I can’t tell you whether this should be a 3, 4, or 5-year plan; that depends on how long we think it will take to build a campus that is financially sustainable and vibrant for the foreseeable future. I can tell you that the task force will be charged with proposing answers to questions such as: What is our ideal undergraduate population in size, demographic composition, and tuition revenue? How might we increase our first-year retention and graduation rates? Which graduate programs are most consistent with our mission and identity, and which are also financially viable? How large should our campus footprint be? What infrastructure improvements are necessary to achieve our goals? What will define our relationships with community and corporate partners? How might we become more nationally visible and conversant with our professional peers? What are the most important professional competencies to develop in our faculty and staff? What compensation is necessary to recruit and retain faculty and staff at levels that provide market equity? We all need to contribute to answering these questions.
Answering these questions won’t redefine us, because we know who we are and what we can do well. They will, however, focus us and help bring the discipline we need to accomplish our purpose of educating students consistent with our vision and values.
Our culture and workplaces are changing. I’ll do my best to continue listening, learning, and appreciating the challenges of those changes. Thank you to those students, staff, and faculty who have joined me for meals, reached out with ideas and feedback, and been valuable thought partners. Please continue to do so with me—and prepare to welcome new people and create new connections and collaborations with them. Perhaps most encouraging to me, at this moment, is the observation that fewer people are saying, “I can’t,” or “I won’t,” and more are asking, “how might we?” Many of us may even be having, here and there, just a little bit more fun.
The semester isn’t over, and we’re heading into the most rewarding time of year: commencement. Let’s congratulate ourselves on hard work accomplished, celebrate our students, and look forward to a year of creativity, collaboration, and confidence in our path ahead.