Spring Address from President Dobkin
April 18, 2023
Thank you for joining me today. This is my 5th spring address at Westminster, so a special thanks to those of you who have been here and heard every one of them!
In the last week alone, in addition to all of the weekly classes, performances, athletic events and activities, we had our Alumni Awards, our mid-cycle, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) accreditation visit, a Senate meeting, a Bastian lecture, an installment of Community Conversations on Leadership, Pride Week, snowstorms, flooding, power outages, now hail, and so on. Let’s show some appreciation for Kenton Gregory and his crew, who continue to keep this campus safe, open, and operating.
At the Alumni Awards on Friday, our inductees into the Athletic Hall of Fame were both transfer students. Craig Caldwell graduated in 1977, when, he noted, our enrollment was probably around 900 students. He and Mitch Montgomery, class of 2001, both noted impressive changes on campus since their time here, while reflecting fondly on their connections with coaches and faculty. Mitch now works in the mortgage and management industry; Craig provides health care and athletic training through his business, Caldwell Physical Therapy and Sports Rehabilitation.
Katelynn Killian, a 2020 graduate, began her academic journey as a pre-med and neuro-science student. While at Westminster, Katelynn rediscovered her joy of dance and movement, and she now makes a life as a movement artist, lighting designer, activist, and teacher who combines talent and passion in service of others.
Andy Larsen, now a writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, is a 2012 honors student who majored in chemistry. He came to Westminster partly as a way to stay in-state and didn’t quite know what to expect when he arrived, but he says he began to understand “who I was and how I could fit in a community of hundreds of other interesting people.” During the pandemic, Andy pivoted from sportswriter to data analyst, cutting through the confusion spawned by Covid and providing critical insights for readers. This move may seem like a stretch, from sports journalism to analysis of medical data, but it exemplifies the outcomes of a Westminster education, where your experiences and studies prepare you for flexible, adaptive leadership. He’s also a great example of, as one alumnus says, “living out all that you’ve learned at Westminster” (Richel Raich-Cantu ‘09). Our students combine knowledge, synthesize skills, and bring inspiration and impact to the communities that they touch. The ability to design a diverse, compelling, and individualized academic journey has become a hallmark of a Westminster education.
Last Friday, we also named former trustee Byron Russell and his life partner Monte Caldwell as honorary alumni. They have been indispensable in advocating for Westminster College and introducing us to new friends during my time as President.
I share these stories as reminders of the power and potential of a Westminster education, which we all contribute to creating. As recently as last week, our accrediting team commented on the quality of our work.
In our closing meeting last Friday, the chair for the visit, Matt Redinger, called the work of our Student Lifecycle Operations group “inspirational,” and noted that the work of our admissions professionals extends from pre-enrollment through matriculation. The team noted the “fabulous,” coordinated efforts in Griffin Guides, Pathways, Learning Communities, and financial aid. They said that the collaboration between academic and student affairs is evidence of the teamwork in senior leadership, our integrated wellness planning and progress is “laudable,” and program assessments in the Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and in Computer Science, both of which were featured in our mid-term report, is “impressive.” Based on these assessments, they praised us for career satisfaction of students, diversity of experiences, intentional efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion, multiple routes to majors, use of varied data sources for program improvement, scaffolding of student learning, and robust student support structures. Finally, they encouraged us to move “full steam ahead” on our signature student experience and our comprehensive approach to integrated wellness.
Many of you were involved in the visit itself, and many more in bringing to life the work noted by the visiting team. The team met with more than 20 staff and faculty across campus. Our mid-cycle accreditation visit was masterfully led by Chris LeCluyse, who was responsible not just for compiling our written report, but also orchestrating the visit and participating in meetings with our peer reviewers. Please join me in thanking Chris and everyone who helped make the visit a success.
We are attracting attention and attracting new students. In the past week we hosted artists, community leaders, and Governor Cox on campus. Although it will be a few more weeks before we have a clearer picture of fall enrollment, we continue to track 15-20% ahead of this time last year in new student deposits for the fall, and returning student registrations look solid as well.
We’re also attracting new employees. During the past academic year, nearly 60 new people have joined the college, bringing energy, talent, and excitement about coming to Westminster. If you’re one of those people and are here today, please raise your hand.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the intentionality and work that’s gone into achieving our progress. A few years ago, faculty and staff began coming together to plan and implement Westminster at 150, in honor of our sesquicentennial in 2025. Our focus was, and continues to be, on improving the student experience and growing revenue. “Addressing these challenges,” we said, “requires enrollment growth through both new students and higher retention of existing ones, portfolio diversity in program revenues, and creating a distinctive market position that demonstrates the value of a Westminster education.” Strategic positioning work groups began convening in Fall 2019 and made recommendations in February of 2020; implementation groups put together initial plans; and Westminster at 150 was officially launched in February of 2021.
With all that’s happened in the last 2 or 3 years, it may be surprising to realize that we’ve been working on implementation of the plan for that long. I’d like to briefly summarize that journey. We began with developing a signature student experience that “focused on the most immediate and distinctive existing strengths likely to drive new undergraduate enrollment and based on the interests and needs of prospective students and their parents” (Westminster at 150). That work has evolved into Griffin Guides, staff and faculty who advise, mentor, and direct students to resources; academic pathways and learning communities to connect students with people and opportunities; and “Learn, Earn, Lead” initiatives that help students develop career confidence. We call this collection of experiences WestX, and it culminates in the campus-wide, Student Showcase this Friday. Thank you to Kathyrn Julian and all of the faculty and students participating this year. The day includes panels and poster sessions with undergraduate and graduate students, creative projects, and performances. I hope to see you there.
Creating a signature student experience is one pillar of Westminster at 150; there are 3 others as well. You’ve already heard a bit about integrated wellness, which is a second pillar of Westminster at 150. The new L.S. Skaggs Integrated Wellness Center should be completed by fall of next year. This donor funded facility brings together our student mental and physical health centers with added attention to nutritional, financial, and spiritual health. We’ll also work next year on building out our Power of Place pillar, which captures everything from the growing co-op programs in the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business to field studies and competitive rock climbing. Our final pillar, diversification of academic programs, extends from new undergraduate certificates to clinical doctorates and PhD programs.
The Westminster at 150 work contributes to our current, upward trajectory. That work is supported by data to inform our decisions. There are good data, for instance, around why students choose a college and why they stay. We know, for instance, that admitted students who chose not to come to Westminster have said that a focus on integrated wellness would have contributed to their decision to enroll. Nonetheless, sometimes we gravitate toward one favorite thing that we personally like, or one type of experience, and think - that’s it! … Students come to Westminster for programs of study that lead them to varied careers, a range of courses and experiences that allow them to learn, create, and explore, and a community where they think they’ll belong and with people who will support them. Students often stay because of one or a few people, usually faculty or staff, who have connected with them, and because of experiences that have been impactful, memorable, and prepare them for a meaningful life.
Note that nowhere did I say that most students come, or stay, because of cost. A scholarship may get students’ attention, make them feel valued, and draw them into considering us, but alone, a scholarship isn’t enough. Those of you who recruit with access to athletic or other talent scholarships know this particularly well. College is still an investment of time and resources, even with a scholarship, and while it’s important and necessary, Westminster students are looking for more than financial aid. Money considerations … can become the most important when students aren’t finding or succeeding in the programs of study and range of experiences they seek, and when they haven’t connected with the people and communities that brought them here in the first place.
Community time was born of this desire to bring people together, during work and class days, to help revitalize the campus, help people find each other, enjoy events, and just breathe. When we started exploring this idea with students, staff, and faculty leadership over a year ago, we found that there weren’t many classes held on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the lunch hour. There was general enthusiasm, and we’ve figured out how to accommodate special program needs and athletic schedules. Now, we can spend the coming academic year with opportunities for social gatherings, collaborative and student-led programming, performances, professional development, and perhaps most importantly, unstructured time to find and enjoy each other’s company. We tell students to come where they will see and be seen, but there has been no shared, open time during the day to do that. So, let’s see how it works next year. Maybe it will even be a time to talk about how newer initiatives are working, like community time.
This coming year we will also, of course, become Westminster University. We have a stellar group, organized by Chris LeCluyse and Leslie-Ann Campbell, which is working on all of the transactional details, and I’ll be working with our Advancement team to continue generating financial support for the transition. As Westminster University, we’ll emphasize a broad liberal arts foundation with opportunities for focused career paths, with expanded graduate and professional program offerings.
This transition will be a topic for our trustees next month, as will our budget and campus planning. Compensation, of course, is a top priority. I will be presenting various options to the Board next month regarding across-the board increases we might make as of July 1. Additionally, I will ask them to reserve a pool of funds to address salary adjustments that might result from our analysis of individual positions and salaries. This work will continue throughout the summer. The dedication of resources for increased compensation is somewhat ahead of our schedule in deficit reduction, but we’ll do what we can. For this to work, we’ll need to continue holding our operating expenses as steady as possible and using restricted resources for operating expenses consistent with donor intent. I’ll also continue working with our Advancement team to solicit funds for those initiatives that align donor interest with our trajectory.
For some of you, employee benefits and leave programs are top of mind. There’s more work to be done in that area, both for employees who access paid leave, and those employees who support work being done when others take leaves. I realize that, in my attempt to open discussion about priorities in employee benefits, I voiced an opinion that created angst for some of you. Our Chief Human Resources Officer, Johanna Barraco, then held numerous listening sessions that deepened our understanding about the importance of this and other benefits to our employees. We also learned that we need to centralize our leave processes in Human Resources so that we can better support employees in considering their current leave options and be able to track their leave usage. In addition to providing personalized support, this will provide us with better data about the use and cost of benefits as we continue to explore priorities in increasing employee compensation. In the meantime, we will continue our 12-week, paid, parental and non-parental FMLA leave policies, and manage these leaves with attention to the distinctive roles and work lives of staff and faculty.
Leaves are not the only employee benefits that have been discussed this year in the Cabinet and the Planning and Priorities Committee. Our current policy allows full-time employees, and their spouses and dependents, to access undergraduate tuition remission after 2 years of full-time employment. As of July 1, full-time employees will be eligible for undergraduate tuition remission after 90 days of employment. There will be no changes in graduate tuition remission.
In addition to considering compensation, our Board of Trustees will receive a report on our comprehensive campus planning efforts. We’ll have preliminary thoughts about the most immediate and cost-effective ways to improve the on-campus experience, as well as long-term recommendations for facilities improvements and renovations that promote the student experience and program expansions. I’ll share more about that work over the summer, as we start transitioning signage to Westminster University, as well as into the new academic year. Even as we identify priorities, we will need additional consultation with staff and faculty to understand the potential impacts of changes before we make them.
The transition to Westminster University creates opportunities to showcase the intrinsic value of our education and amplify our uniqueness, particularly in Utah. The idea that higher education has intrinsic value has taken a beating lately, both nationally and in our own state. This can contribute to generalized anxiety about the future, and I’m keenly aware of the toll that uncertainty about the future takes on our community.
I was asked, not too long ago, why I made a lifetime commitment to education, and when I first realized that this might be a career choice. I’ve thought about many times over the years. Was it when I became an adjunct faculty member, or teaching riding lessons years ago? Really, my earliest hints at being invested in education came at around six years old. I remember being in my room, lining up stuffed animals on my bed, and pretending to be a teacher. So, I guess it goes back a long way for me.
For those of us who have made a career in education a life choice, the current environment may be particularly challenging. Every day the value of what we do is questioned and shut down, most recently by state legislatures. Know that what you do can be life-changing, and a source of great joy. Know that you are making great contributions to humanity, because humans are curious learners who yearn to make sense of the world and be valued. Know that our world will be better because of the work that you do. Support others in their work, even as they may struggle with the ambiguities in their lives.
Our students need us, and they need the skills to engage across differences in meaningful, empathetic, and substantive ways. You heard the opening stories of our alumni, and the value our students place on developing a distinct identity. At the same time, you may also have seen current students less willing to step into leadership roles and lacking confidence in the face of challenges. There’s plenty of press - and politics - these days around a perceived student intolerance for freedom of expression. Some recent data suggest that students are more supportive of shutting down speech they find objectionable than listening and responding with reasoned arguments. Although these data are often used to support narratives of cancel culture in higher education, the reality is more nuanced.
I’ve heard faculty colleagues say that many students are cautious or reticent in class, to the point of simply repeating back the received wisdom of a text rather than challenging it, not because of any perceived political leanings of a faculty member, but because of potential shaming by peers, in person or online; a difficulty in separating genuine inquiry from personal attack; and an onslaught of media narratives about the dangers of speaking up.
Just speaking or giving an opinion in the name of viewpoint diversity isn’t good enough. I’ve never been one to endorse provocation for entertainment or profit, which seems to characterize utterances of some of the most popular public figures, and I would never condone personal shaming, attacks, or incitement to violence. Gaslighting, ghosting, mansplaining, and microaggressions are all real, as are misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia, and white supremacy. But if we can’t talk about them thoughtfully, respectfully, and empathetically - or if we can’t talk about them at all - we’ll never come up with shared understanding and solutions to our most pressing and deepest social problems. As a country, we seem to be losing the ability to disagree without dehumanizing others. Our students need the ability to challenge ideas thoughtfully, supported by credible evidence, and with the tools to counter inappropriate attacks. As a university, we can model this kind of deliberation. It happens in some of our classes and could be one of our greatest strengths.
These conversations about our identity as a university have been underway with our trustees. In addition to adopting their own DEI Commitment, the Board of Trustees meeting in February included the session, “Unpacking Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression: Contemporary Challenges for Higher Education,” with readings that included the University of Chicago’s "Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression," the American Council on Education’s “Practices of Freedom: Freedom of Speech, Academic Freedom, and Shared Governance,” and readings from American Association of Colleges & Universities, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Diverse Issues in Higher Education. I also asked them to read about critical race theory and reparations, not to take a position on such things, but to understand the kinds of ideas that are being banned across the country, and to affirm our mission as an institution dedicated to critical inquiry and deliberation about all kinds of ideas.
At that meeting, the Board also worked through scenarios about controversial speakers and conflicts over student speech. At their meeting next month, trustees will continue the conversation and review the existing statement in our Faculty Manual about academic freedom. My hope is that our trustees deepen their understanding about the connections between diversity, equity and inclusion commitments and freedom of expression, and that we become known, as a university, for our ability to listen, learn, and model the critical conversations of our time.
Even as we become Westminster University, some people will call us small. We’re small enough for students to find a home and a community, but big in opportunities for growth, challenge, and leadership. We’re a place for students to be seen as who they are and grow to be, to have an independent voice, and to exceed their own - and sometimes our - expectations.
You have created this Westminster. Be proud of it, and the students we support. And finally, thank you for being here and continuing the conversations that move us forward.