President Dobkin's Fall 2020 Address to Campus
August 21, 2020
Thank you for spending an hour with me during a very busy week.
We just moved in residential students for the fall semester, conducted an orientation with both in-person and online modules, and launched robust learning opportunities in and out of classrooms. It’s not “back to normal,” and how long in-person activity lasts will depend on human—and virus—behavior we can’t completely control. But retaining the essence of what we do as educators is critical to the health of our students, our country, and our democracy.
All summer, staff and administrators have been working in conditions that change weekly—sometimes daily—and doing everything they can to prepare a safe campus, from staggering shifts to supplying hand sanitizers and measuring spaces for adequate distancing. Whole divisions have had to rethink their work, from virtual and family visits in admissions to online alumni events in advancement. Our maintenance and grounds workers have tried to meet every request; our IS staff have been working nonstop, day and night, to provide support and service to staff and faculty. Those who don’t know better have said to me, “it must be a quiet summer with so much shut down.” But you know, as well as I, that the pandemic has meant more work, more adjustment, more urgency, and more stress in preparation for this semester. Many staff and administrators are doing double duty and taking on more responsibilities rather than hiring more people. The new staff and faculty who are joining us are critical to ensuring the health and safety of our community, serving the needs of our students, or adding to our capacity for revenue generation. They all deserve our respect and gratitude.
I’d like to recognize a few people by name at the risk of leaving out so many others for whom I’m grateful. So, at the end of my remarks, please help me by using the chat function to share your own words of appreciation. Thank you to Bri Buckley, who has been a campus hero, and Bill Self, April Greener, Rick Hackworth, Han Kim, Sheryl Steadman, Jess Sweitzer, and all of the people meeting weekly in our COVID-19 work group. Thank you to Spencer Potter, who made masks for me back in April. Thanks to all of the faculty leaders, Russ, Matt, Georgi, and Brian, who have been willing to meet, offer counsel, and collaborate, and to Jo-Ahn Roka Pena, Chris LeCluyse, Eileen Chanza Torres, Shelly Erickson, and Julia Kamentezky for taking on new faculty leadership roles, and Dan Cairo and Kenton Gregory for taking leadership of and assuming responsibility for their divisions. Thanks to Sheila, Arrika, Chanae, Laura, and the entire MarComm team for their patience, diligence, and creativity with countless messages and website changes. Thanks to Emmalee, who helps me stay sane, and my to cabinet colleagues and deans. Every email message, decision, policy, and new process involves hours of consultation before becoming public, and all of these people have been incredibly wise, collegial, and generous with their time. Thank you to all of the staff and faculty who privately share messages of support and gratitude to me, as well as asking important questions and giving valuable feedback. And finally, thank you (and happy anniversary) to Randy, who supports not just me, but our entire Westminster community, in addition to being a great window cleaner.
As the semester continues, our gratitude needs to keep coming. We are all doing the best we can with the information that’s available and the speed with which we need to act. When under pressure, it’s natural to fall back on behaviors that have worked in the past and default to comfortable places. Our current circumstances call for change and for different behaviors, from how we talk to each other, to how we work together.
I understand the frustration with being asked to do things differently. Change takes energy, and that’s in short supply right now. We knew that some changes would be necessary before the pandemic. We knew that we needed structural changes and long-term strategies to ensure financial sustainability. We knew that we needed to build on our strengths in ways that demonstrated our unique value to our students. We knew that we needed to become more equitable and efficient in our processes, and more inclusive in our community. The novel coronavirus has exposed all of us to social and economic realities that were previously apparent to only some of us, and have put greater urgency behind our need to get our operations in order, so that we can provide the education that prepares students to address the complex issues of our time.
This morning isn’t the time for a deep dive into budget and operations; I’ll do that later in the semester. Know that we must continue to look at expenses and efficiencies, including all of the suggestions made in the college-wide budget survey earlier this summer. That work will continue in consultation with the Planning and Priorities Committee. At the same time, we need to look forward to Westminster’s future.
I’ve seen enough and been here long enough to know that we can get through this pandemic, and we will be forever changed by it in some powerful and exciting ways. I’m appreciative of and impressed by everyone who has worked on our strategic priorities over the summer, at a time when it’s hard to think beyond the next week or month. But the urgency of the time also means we have to focus on a few of our most distinctive, existing strengths likely to drive new enrollment and based on the interests and needs of prospective students. This means we’re not undertaking a traditional, comprehensive strategic planning process, but focusing on priorities with the specific aim of improving our enrollment and financial outcomes. In bringing together great ideas and strengths in our people and programs, we have the opportunity to demonstrate a unique, compelling approach to education that weaves together the understanding and practice of equity, comprehensive wellness leading to an integrated life, and leadership that prepares students to act ethically and effectively, consistent with their emergent values and beliefs. Equity, wellness, and leadership have been identified as our pillars of distinction.
We’ll be asking for more community input in the coming months regarding our proposed focus on a signature student experience that gives all students the opportunity to become career-ready, able to apply their academic coursework in a variety of contexts and step into leadership roles ethically, effectively, and responsibly. We’ll continue to look at ways to expand our interdisciplinary strengths, such that all students will have the opportunity to design a course of study beyond academic majors that prepares them to solve complex social, political, economic and environmental problems. We’ll continue with plans to launch graduate and professional programs that align student interests, market demands, and Westminster programmatic strengths and opportunities to generate greater tuition revenue. And, we’ll prioritize programs to support student retention and the professional development of our faculty and staff, consistent with our pillars of distinction.
Thus far, I’ve talked about equity in the context of both a global pandemic and our strategic priorities. Our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts aren’t new, and we need to sustain the momentum of our most recent plans. At the same time, the trauma, and for some who have been insulated from it, the growing awareness of racial injustice, call for an institutional response beyond our prior efforts. Toward that end, we will be committing to additional actions on the path to becoming an anti-racist institution. Leading our efforts is Dr. Tamara Stevenson. Over a year ago, I named Dr. Stevenson as our Interim Chief Diversity Officer, and since that time she has successfully sponsored and coordinated events, chaired the Diversity Strategic Planning Council, diversity engagement team, and bias education and response team, supported professional development for faculty and staff, and provided wise counsel as a cabinet colleague. I believe she will do even more for our campus and community in the years to come, and I am grateful for her willingness to accept an ongoing appointment as our chief diversity officer.
Our actions in the coming months and years include: implementing mandatory implicit bias and bystander intervention training for students, staff, faculty, and our Board of Trustees; implementing inclusive, equity-targeted staff and faculty recruitment and hiring policies and practice; improving student recruitment and retention policies and practices to increase diversity among our student body; advancing cultural diversity and anti-racism across the curriculum; developing and publicizing campus unit-level diversity, equity, and inclusion statements; conducting a review and analysis of the college’s cultural history; and supporting the development and implementation of student- staff-, and faculty-led learning opportunities on combatting racism.
Some of these actions are extensions of good work already underway. Others, such as unit-level diversity, equity, and inclusion statements are easier said than done, but the act of doing them provides opportunity to practice the very behaviors that such statements describe. And finally, I am particularly excited about exploring our college’s cultural history in ways that reveal artifacts of oppression without erasing or valorizing them, but by giving us ways of reckoning with our past that provide lessons for the present and possibilities for a more equitable and inclusive future. Thank you, in advance, to Jeff Nichols for agreeing to share in this important work.
Working directly with faculty and students is the part of academic life that I miss the most, particularly given our pandemic restrictions. So, as part of Monday’s faculty retreat, I listened in on sessions about pedagogy and diversity. Erin Coleman Serrano was one of the speakers, and she talked about the importance of sharing personal narratives in understanding people’s perspectives and motivations. In that spirit, I’d like to share a few of the pivotal moments in growing up that affected how I think about and experience the world….
These experiences were lessons in shaming and retaliation, which I fight to this day. I also came to understand the power of stereotype threat, and the impact that a simple statement can have on a person’s ability to learn. Finally, I also came to understand the power of words and the slippery slope from microaggression to violence.
Many of my experiences have pulled me toward difference, rather than away from it, have driven me to see value in everyone, rather than deficiency, and have led me to discover the satisfaction of advancing equity in systems and epiphanies in students. I’m invested in education that’s inclusive; communication that is clear, consistent, and respectful; in holding people accountable for gossip, derogatory remarks, and shaming; and inviting people in rather than calling them out. I think we have a strong, powerful commitment to inclusion, and a community willing to work on a “wider sense of we,” to use Erin’s words. And we’ve all, always, have more to do.
Right now, that “wider sense of we” includes promoting sometimes uncomfortable behaviors around keeping everyone safe. It’s hard to wear face coverings when it’s hot, or remember putting them on for that trip to the restroom, or keeping at least 6 feet away when you’re having a conversation while walking across campus. It can be even harder to ask someone else to comply, particularly when you don’t know what reaction you’ll get….Do your best to follow the rules, don’t take it personally if someone asks you to change, and know that our number one goal is to keep our community safe. It’s hard to be the best versions of ourselves under such immense pressure, uncertainty, and stress, but we need to try.
Finally, though it’s hard to be together physically, know that you can continue to count on me in the following ways: I’ll read all of your emails; I’ll answer your questions as directly and openly as I can. I believe in the importance of relationships, and in you. I will continue to rely on open and broad consultation in making decisions. I will insist on accountability even when it’s uncomfortable, and I will emphasize process over personality. I will continue to listen, learn, and act to help ensure the best possible future for our college.
The world needs Westminster, and Westminster needs you. Thank you, and best wishes for a safe, kind, and productive semester.