Letter to Faculty and Staff from the President - Sept. 12, 2018

September 12, 2018

This edition of the Griffin Gazette marks the beginning of a reimagined newsletter, brought to you by the President’s Cabinet and structured to address the information needs of our community. For this first edition, I would like to share news regarding the recent Westminster Board of Trustees retreat as well as provide updates and information that extends the themes I introduced at the August breakfast.

We began the retreat with reference to those August remarks, which reminded us of the college’s stunning location; our capacity for growth while retaining our intimacy and sense of community; the faculty’s stellar reputation and passion for student learning; and the college’s embrace of inclusive excellence. We reviewed the successes of the strategic plan, including launching the Honors College, WCore, and new academic programs; increasing field-based and global learning opportunities; and receiving CACREP accreditation and NCAA Division II status. I introduced the results of our Great College to Work For survey (see attachment for more detailed results and action items from the cabinet), the cabinet- level conversations we’ve had about addressing the issues raised, and the need for commitment to the highest standards of competence and professionalism. Those standards need to characterize our culture—not at the expense of relationships, but in support of them—because trust grows and organizations flourish when people know that they’re being treated consistently, fairly, and respectfully.

I accepted the position of president knowing that my first budget year was projected to have a deficit. This is not a crisis, nor a reason to panic: we have healthy enough reserves to compensate for a deficit. At the same time, it is imperative that we create a multi-year plan of fiscal sustainability, and I discussed this at length with our trustees. We expect to land at 2,000 undergraduates and 500 graduate students when the census date occurs in mid- October. While we were successful in increasing the number of new first-year students in August with a number of staff and faculty working hard to recruit students, new students will be paying lower net tuition (the amount students pay after aid has been awarded) given some of the changes implemented in our financial aid packages. The institutional funding allocated for the Griffin Grant program was extended last year beyond the initial intent, resulting in a new student discount rate that may reach close to 60 percent. Furthermore, given that we graduated a large class in May, our overall enrollment is likely to be lower than last year. Knowing this, the trustees and I discussed revenue generation for the college, the likelihood of evaluating the amount of financial aid we can provide to students, and the need to continue work on improvements in operations that will help us recruit more students and sustain the level of academic preparation in them that we have come to expect.

I share the desires to increase access and eliminate financial barriers for students. The reality, though, is that there are limits to how much aid we can provide and still fulfill our promise of a high-quality education. The emphasis on quality is something I’ve asked staff to focus on in our recruiting: we need to lead with quality, our compelling case about the value of a Westminster education, and then work with students toward a financial aid package that they can manage. In many cases, this will mean students taking on debt, but our financial aid counselors are skilled professionals who can help students and their families navigate this. Average Westminster student indebtedness is below the national norms, and of course that’s a point of pride. The worthiness of investing in a Westminster education also needs to be a point of pride. And, if we bring students into an inclusive community that values the full range of diversity that they bring, they are more likely to make Westminster their home.

Our attempts to address affordability sometimes tempt us to compare our net tuition to large state institutions like the University of Utah, and “price matching” has gained some interest nationally. Given our low faculty-to-student ratios, small class sizes, and expectations of student engagement, we simply can’t—and shouldn’t expect to—offer the same tuition levels as large, state institutions with very low tuition and budgets supported by taxpayers. And, while I appreciate the desire to help students reduce costs by encouraging them to live off campus if they have family close by, this strategy works against our goals of student success, as residential living promotes persistence, personal responsibility, engagement, and learning from difference.

We also discussed the importance of degree completion to the success of our students and our college. We have considerable room to grow in our retention and graduation rates, and we need to better understand why some students leave and what has helped others to persist. At least 60 percent of our students acquire debt while at Westminster, and our four-year graduation rate is 48 percent, a figure well below that of our peer institutions. This means many students are leaving with debt and without a degree. College becomes more affordable with timely graduation and the improved career prospects from completing a degree. Creating a culture of commencement needs to be our top priority.

The trustees also discussed both their own succession plans and commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as successfully completing the college strategic plan. This resulted in the formation of a Board of Trustee’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force that will develop the first board-level diversity plan. As I said during our August breakfast, the region is growing, bringing with it an increasingly rich diversity of people who, if we truly practice equity and inclusion, will strengthen our uniqueness and academic excellence. Just as all the departments across campus are developing their own diversity plans, the Board is doing so as well. Our trustees have a role to play, both in their own composition, but perhaps even more importantly in helping us cultivate an inclusive community, one that successfully recruits, retains, and graduates underserved students, and which models the policies and practices that affirm human dignity and respect.

Finally, we discussed campus fundraising priorities and affirmed the board’s commitment to endowing scholarships, supporting the Honors College, and completing the Jewett Center for Performing Arts addition. This third priority seems to have been the most controversial, as some have considered the Jewett addition to be a special interest, driven by a few people, and not central to the needs or aspirations of the college. I understand those concerns and can see how some initiatives and gifts in the past may have generated concern. The Jewett Center addition, however, provides us with an opportunity to raise the profile of campus, provide necessary facilities to academic programs of the present and future, showcase the visual and performing arts of our students and faculty, create opportunities for revenue generation, and, perhaps most importantly, underscore our commitments to human creativity and performance as enduring qualities in an era of increasing automation and digitization. We are two-thirds of the way towards funding this addition, with over $10 million raised, but construction costs increase by the month. Therefore, our trustees have committed to breaking ground on this facility over the next academic year, without compromising our goals for scholarships, support for the Honors College, and continuing efforts toward building the Westminster annual fund and retention activities.

The Board of Trustees retreat last week was engaging, energizing, and ambitious. I sought from them, and received, affirmation for the commitment to the foundations of a residential, liberal arts college at the same time we embrace innovation. Perhaps most importantly, they also understood my need for time to learn more about the people, programs, and possibilities that I have yet to discover at Westminster. I look forward to our continuing conversations as we define and plan for the future of the college.

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