President Edward Montgomery delivered the 2021-22 State of the University address on Tuesday, April 5, in the Bernhard Center's North Ballroom. This marked the first in-person State of the University address since fall 2019.
Good afternoon. It is wonderful to be together in person for the first time in two years for the State of the University address. As we entered the pandemic, no one knew for certain where that road would lead, but I was confident that we would emerge a stronger University because of you. We—I emphasize WE—have done just that, and today I’ll share some evidence that while this pandemic affected all of us in many ways, we are emerging steeled for a new future.
The last two years have been hard and, at times, just plain awful. For most of us, it has been one of the most difficult times in our professional and personal lives, colored by cycles of fear, frustration, anger, anxiety, exhaustion and sometimes even grief. There have been 80 million COVID-19 cases and nearly a million related deaths in the United States alone. COVID-19 has touched nearly all aspects of our lives and, unfortunately, it took away too many loved ones, friends, role models and heroes.
I’d like to pause for a moment of silence to remember those we have lost in our personal lives and to acknowledge the trauma the pandemic has caused both here at home and around the globe. Thank you.
In 2020, 43 different state governors issued stay-at-home orders and closed nearly all face-to-face businesses, causing the nation's GDP to drop by more than 31% and 22 million people lost their jobs. During that record-setting decline, employers and employees were faced with unprecedented conditions and forced to make decisions they never wanted, nor thought they would ever have to make.
While the worst of the pandemic seems to be behind us and the economy is rebounding, we are still coping with the fallout at home and on the job; retirements surged; teaching modalities have shifted. We continue with virtual meetings. Telework is more prevalent, and fewer staff remain to complete the tasks that are the hallmarks of the excellent experience for which we are known.
What I’d like to do with our time today is re-center us on our “why” and clarify a vision for the future in the context of our immediate and longer-term landscape. To contextualize this, look forward, let’s first take a step back.
Like many of you, I entered higher education driven by the purpose that we all share here at Western: to make the world a little bit better. Whether you teach in a classroom, advance innovation in a lab, keep our students well fed and housed, protect our safety, manage an office—even issue parking tickets—send bills, remove snow or mow the grass—you create life-changing opportunities that contribute to the creation and dissemination of knowledge that enriches and serves our society.
Now I attended college in the middle of the greatest expansion of higher education our nation has ever seen. It was fueled by the GI Bill and the baby boom and the Cold War. If you earned your degree or began working at Western in a year that starts with a 19, you too remember this vast expansion of growth. Our reality was one of growing state investments, unquestioned public support and packed classes. We moved from being a normal school to a college to a university and then to a research university. Steady enrollment growth and expanding resources were immutable truths that were as accepted as the rising and setting of the sun.
Around the turn of this century, however, things began changing. Out migration and declining college attendance rates set off a chain reaction that led to a two-decade-long decline in our enrollment. The pace of our decline has largely followed the population trends across the state, but it has quickened in the last two years. The pandemic only intensified this trend accelerating the contraction of students at nearly every public university in the state. Looking ahead, the demographic trends in Michigan are now a nationwide trends that are predicted to continue for the foreseeable future.
Over the same period, public support for higher education has waxed and waned following a fairly predictable cycles. Unfortunately, by the end of each cycle, we were left a little more diminished than we had been at the beginning. Taking a wider view today, we see that state appropriations for higher education operations in 2022 are at the same level in purchasing power terms as they were in 1999. Consequently, Michigan has fallen to 44th in terms of state support per student.
Think about this in a different context; think about climate change as an analogy. Each year our planet has been warming by a fraction of a degree—an almost imperceptible rate. For days, weeks, years, maybe even decades, we don’t really seem to notice climate change. But when we look over a long period, its effect is clearly visible. As a college student, I saw a full Lake Meade behind the Hoover Dam; today that reservoir is drying out. As a young professor I saw the mighty Ganges River rolling through India. Now the World Wildlife Fund lists it among the world’s most endangered rivers. Our winters seem shorter and milder while hurricanes, forest fires and droughts are far more frequent and intense.
As a society, we are slowly coming to a common understanding that this is a circumstance we must address. With a growing consensus on the problem, we are now starting to see collective solutions. The problem seems daunting, the implications of failure are really scary, but solutions do exist and success is possible. In this case, the sooner we start, the easier it will be to solve.
In higher education, our own climate change problem has been the contraction of available students and public support that began over two decades ago—and is forecasted to continue for at least the next 15 years. The pandemic was a hurricane—an undeniable episodic event that accentuated the reality of our circumstance—but COVID-19 did not cause it.
Most of us chose to work in higher education to affect positive change; traditionally this has been in the context of a very stable environment. Education fueled the American Dream and served as a catalyst for social mobility. Faith in, and support for, public education was broad based and steady as our value was obvious. Today, that faith has been shaken and support is more conditional. We must be able to clearly demonstrate how we make a real difference in the lives of our students—what do they get for the biggest investment some of them will make in their adult lives, outside of buying a house? We must be able to articulate to elected officials, who represent our citizens, precisely how we make life in Michigan better.
It’s important that we understand this very clearly: The contraction in our sector is our circumstance, it’s not who we are as an institution. We cannot easily or quickly change our circumstance, but we can change how we respond to it. It is the choices we make, not our circumstances, that determine our destiny and who we will become. Similar to our ability to affect climate change, if we have the will to do so, we can address the circumstances facing Western Michigan University but it will require action from all of us.
The biggest change is that we must actively compete for a smaller number of students and diminishing funding. Competing for students today requires a completely different way of thinking that touches on everything that we do. To be sure, it means that we must become more sophisticated in our student recruitment and marketing efforts. But that only scratches the surface. Our reputation on social media or in the innumerable review and rating sources as well as peer-to-peer recommendations all impact our ability to attract and retain students from that dwindling pool.
Demonstrating our ability to provide a great education to any student who walks through the doors is vital. Attracting and retaining a talented, diverse and forward-thinking faculty and staff is imperative. Providing wise stewardship of our precious resources is crucial. Attending to these fundamentals will require the efforts of every member of our community.
Let’s not confuse attending to the needs of our students with lowering the bar. We do no one any favors in passing the unprepared. Delivering quality and insisting on academic excellence is in fact an integral piece of helping our students to thrive.
Let’s take Hawke Osterhout as an example. They are a psychology major with minors in holistic health and wellness and theatre. Hawke discovered purpose and direction at Western, thanks to the guidance of Dr. Jessica Van Stratton, associate professor of psychology, who provided mentoring and opportunities to participate in a practicum. And when Hawke ran into financial challenges, Dr. Stephanie Peterson, the chair of the psychology department, connected them with the process to receive a Student Emergency Relief Fund grant. Hawke’s life was perhaps forever changed because these faculty members cared.
Whether we help students learn, greet admitted students on tours, provide sound advising, offer career services that help students get jobs, clean buildings, maintain public safety or one of a multitude of other crucial roles, we all support a culture that helps students find belonging, become strong and find their purpose. We therefore all contribute to our reputation as a destination for a quality, holistic educational experience.
Our vision is to ensure that we continue to be guided by that foundational statement that was expressed in the last century when we stated: “So that all may learn.” We must maintain its relevance in this century. We are a value-added University, a social mobility University, one that prepares anyone with the ambition, regardless of background, to not only sit at but contribute and lead any table in the world. Whether you're talking about a corporate boardroom table, an operating room table, a kindergarten classroom table or anywhere else—Broncos are prepared and talented, but they’re also good people because they have purpose, strength and meaning.
Are we ready to face the challenge that is our new reality? Has the pandemic left us drained and ready to give up or steeled us for what’s ahead? Well, Broncos, they never give up!
This year it has become clear that there is a broad consensus at Western that we must respond to and face the challenges head on. We have a renewed sense of urgency in every corner. Enrollment is the watchword and I can tell you that in all of my years of higher education, I have never seen the kind of campuswide support for recruiting and enrolling an incoming class as I have seen this semester.
You’ve turned out at Admitted Student Events and supported our first Western Weekend, all of which attracted hundreds of students and their families; you’ve reinvigorated residence hall tours; you’ve kept the campus looking beautiful; and found ways to feed guests despite supply chain issues. These actions send a strong statement to our prospective students and their families that Western is truly is a welcoming and supportive community where they’ll find their place and build a great future.
This is just a piece, however, of a bigger strategy. Enrollment and marketing strategies are only a part of the picture. We have been working to strengthen our competitive position for the past five years through numerous systemic steps that are intentional, interconnected and strategic. They include a 21st century core curriculum, increased focus on our advising and retention efforts, expansion in financial aid, and improvements in our research and innovation infrastructure. We are also enhancing our physical campus, implementing a contemporary budget model to spur innovation in pedagogy and the creation of new programs and we have launched our most ambitious fundraising campaign ever.
Elevating student success
Look at the experience we are providing to our students. Despite the enormous challenges of the pandemic, our commitment to our students has continued unabated. We’re working together so that we can give more opportunities to students like Aunner Calderon.
Aunner is a biomedical sciences major, a Foundation Scholar and member of the Lee Honors College who is planning a career as a physician. He came to Michigan as a teenager with his mother and siblings, fleeing domestic violence and poverty in Guatemala. Upon arrival, he didn’t speak a word of English but he quickly learned and graduated as valedictorian of his Grand Rapids high school. He had multiple full-ride scholarship offers, but he chose Western because here he found community that was offering him strong support and support from faculty members like Lee Honors College Dean Irma Lopez and staff members like Mark Delorey, the Foundation Scholars advisor.
Aunner’s story exemplifies a model for attracting, retaining and graduating students that will set Western apart and make this institution a top choice college for all students. What did we offer Aunner that our competitors did not? At Western, he built positive, caring relationships with faculty and staff. He found a community of peers and he got a great education that is preparing him for his future. While Aunner’s story is remarkable, it is also common at Western. Ninety eight percent of our graduates had at least one instructor who made them excited about learning and 90% felt that their instructors cared about them as a person.
I hear it from alumni all the time, “My professors believed in me and helped me succeed.” “Western gave me a chance when others wouldn’t.”
This is the essence of what’s best about our University. We’re already great in so many ways—our challenge now is to level-up what we're already doing well to provide across-the-board excellence so that each and every student gets a highly engaged, holistic and mentored education and that we continue to be leaders in making the American Dream a reality. It’s at the core of our interconnected and ambitious campuswide initiatives; it’s what will drive our decision-making and goal-setting well into the 21st century.
Scholarship in service to students and society
Providing a transformative learning experience is only part of the Western story. A question I get asked often is whether it is our teaching or our research mission that's most important. The answer is both. It is why we are looking forward to welcoming a new vice president for research and innovation who will advance this mission. We have also formed a search advisory committee who will help us identify the next provost.
Scholarship and teaching are both foundational elements of a high quality education. As a research university, inquiry and creative scholarship are essential to who we are. They do not exist at odds but instead are complementary, each supporting the other.
Engaged, innovative faculty members who are at the frontiers of their fields are better prepared to pass on that knowledge to our students. Active teachers find new questions to explore and new ways to engage. They get pushed to think harder about what they know. Our faculty excel in both teaching and in discovery and innovation.
Faculty members like Drs. Patricia Reeves and Jianping Shen, who recently earned a nearly $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, are helping to build student success through a comprehensive effort that involves community and educational partners in the Grand Rapids area.
We are also actively nurturing creativity and new thinking to solve problems. It’s why the first Interdisciplinary Team Excellence Enhancement grant went to Dr. Jeremy Duncan, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. He’s leading a team with faculty from biological sciences; but also chemistry; psychology; speech, language and hearing sciences; blindness and low vision studies; mechanical and aerospace engineering; and gerontology. They are addressing the challenges of hearing and vision loss amongst our aging population.
Supporting groundbreaking scholarship is also why we established the Presidential Innovation Professorships. The faculty members who earn these three-year awards are making unique contributions to their fields.
Just consider the 2021 class of scholars:
- Dr. Massood Atashbar, professor of electrical and computer engineering, is developing a flexible and portable platform to sterilize wounds, incisions and surgical equipment to prevent infection occurrences and reduce health care costs.
- Dr. Wendy Beane, associate professor of biological sciences, is investigating the ability of cells to sense and respond to quantum effects.
- Dr. Sue Ellen Christian, a professor of communication, has a thought-provoking exhibit inviting us to scrutinize the media that we consume that's going to be opening soon at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.
- Dr. D’Jaris Coles-White, associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, is exploring multicultural issues in speech disorders and social language skills in children with autism spectrum disorders.
During the Spring Research Convocation on April 15, were going to announce the 2022 class. When faculty engage in scholarship and knowledge generation, they bring the best of their disciplinary knowledge into the classroom, giving our students an even richer learning experience. They open doors, they give guidance and feedback and instill confidence in our students.
We see that in efforts like the one led by Dr. Upal Attanayake, professor of civil engineering. He's engaging undergraduate and graduate students in a project with the Michigan Department of Transportation to rebuild a bridge over Interstate 94 in Detroit. It’s cutting-edge work, as the bridge is being partially completed off-site and moved into place using self-propelled modular transporters.
Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten’s criminal justice students are getting a truly amazing and meaningful experience through the new Cold Case Program she established. Under her direction, students have been assisting the Michigan State Police in solving unsolved homicides. Their work recently helped lead to an arrest in a decades-old murder case and will soon be featured in NBC national news programming.
And Dr. David Rudge, professor of biology, who was recognized for his excellence as an educator earlier this year when the Michigan Science Teachers Association named him College Teacher of the Year. Stop and think about that. Among more than 50 colleges and universities in Michigan, it is Western that is home to the best collegiate science educator in the state.
Strategic Resource Management
Whether we're talking about the classroom, the lab, the studio or in applied settings, we have not simply continued our education, research and creative scholarship missions in the face of two years of adversity, we’ve done so with excellence. However, if we are going to truly compete, we must think holistically about the University in the same way we think holistically about students.
Strategic Resource Management (SRM), for example, is a purposeful approach to managing our resources. University budgeting is an arcane and complex activity. We need to be more transparent in not only how we budget expenses but also how we budget revenue. SRM requires campus leaders to manage both sides of the ledger—expenses and revenue—and lays bare hidden expenses like space and equipment costs. It incentivizes innovation and responsiveness to student needs. It will respond to enrollment changes as well as our values regarding things like student achievement, academic excellence, faculty success, and diversity and inclusion. While new to us, SRM’s basic principles are far from new or unique in higher education. Hundreds of universities across the nation from Kent State to Michigan to Harvard have used this structure for decades. SRM puts the power of knowledge in our hands by providing information that helps us compete and respond to our circumstances and align with our strategic priorities.
Western’s physical environment
The work we are doing to enhance our physical spaces is another good example of activating our competitive spirit. When we ask admitted students why they've opted to attend other universities over Western, the single most common response is the physical environment.
Facilities are also helping us enhance our education. Consider the new Aviation Education Center. This building opened last summer and it dramatically expands our capacity to educate and prepare future pilots, technical experts and aviation managers. As the only collegiate aviation program to partner with career pathway programs with Delta, American and United airlines, it's vital that our students have access to the cutting-edge tools and experiences that will prepare them for takeoff.
They’ll also enhance faculty resources for delivering a world-class education when the newly renovated Dunbar Hall opens its doors in fall 2023. This 50-year-old structure, one of our most heavily used classroom buildings, was overdue for an upgrade. Students will spend more time engaging in coursework than hunting for electrical outlets, and instructors can infuse their pedagogy with technology to enhance their learning experiences.
Other campus buildings also matter to the quality of student life and their experience. Opening this fall, the new student center and dining facility will provide an attractive focal point and activity hub for current students and will make a great first impression on prospective students who visit its new welcome center.
But what’s most important is that the new facility is about belonging. It will be a vibrant facility built for students and designed to bring them together in the heart of our campus. RSO’s will be front and center, and there will be indoor hammocks and, of course, Starbucks. The dining center will provide a place to get a variety of great food where the action is, there will also be an enormous gaming room. In my day that meant pool and ping pong. Now it's esports and virtual reality.
And following long days in classes, study groups and RSO meetings, work experiences and socializing, students will return to comfortable and contemporary residential spaces like Arcadia Flats.
Because these improvements in our physical facilities are so important for the educational experience we are able to offer, we were able to garner state investment that exceeded $45 million, dramatically reducing our costs to these projects. The result will be a campus that attracts 21st century students and helps them thrive, while allowing us to wisely manage our resources and improve energy efficiency, thus significantly reducing our carbon footprint.
In addition to delivering an excellent education, advancing the frontiers of knowledge and enhancing our overall experience through Strategic Resource Management and an enhanced campus, we are also becoming more strategic in our enrollment management efforts. We have been engaged in early outreach to high school sophomores and juniors and deployed strategic application campaigns to place ourselves in the consideration set of more students both in and out of Michigan.
While it will take time for us to turn the enrollment picture around, our efforts are beginning to bear fruit with record applications last year and another increase this year of around 8%. We have accelerated our responses to applications and merit awards and sent financial aid packages out earlier than ever before.
Yield is where the rubber hits the road. While we are seeing positive growth in admitted student deposits, we cannot rest because our competition is not resting. The state’s flagships are enrolling more students and every public institution in the state is trying to up its game.
Again, I’ll underscore that addressing our challenges will take the commitment of every one of us. A critical addition that we will make to our team soon is the new associate vice president for enrollment management.
Elevating our culture
Providing a meaningful and relevant learning environment also requires providing a strong and safe culture. We seek to give students room to learn, engage with one another and the greater community, and at the same time give employees a rich and rewarding professional environment. I know that we have work to do in this arena, and I’m committed to continuing to make progress.
I am pleased to also announce one step forward we will be taking this summer. During June and July, work schedules for non-bargaining employees will end at noon on Fridays. We will soon provide more details and guidance on how we will implement this while continuing normal business functions during those months. As we emerge from the pandemic, one thing we’ve heard that would be welcome is greater flexibility during the summer, and so we’re happy to make this idea a reality.
Another step forward is the Employee Engagement Survey. We first conducted this environmental assessment in 2019. You told us that as leaders, we needed to put in time to better communicate, collaborate and engage. We heard you, loud and clear, and undertook some efforts in units across campus. We also promised you we'd revisit the survey on a regular basis to say, "Are we really making progress?"
It would have been easier to postpone this survey. We fully anticipate that the challenges of the pandemic will come through in the results. But at Western, we do hard things. We face our challenges head on; we keep our word. Now that the survey is complete, we are looking forward to the results and enacting changes that will engender a stronger culture.
Empowering Futures implementation
One of the reasons I’m most confident about our future stems from our early implementation of the momentous Empowering Futures Gift. This coming fall, we will welcome our first Bronco Promise Scholars, awarded to any Michigan resident new student with a household income of $50,000 or less and $50,000 or less in net assets. We are adding other academic scholarships for juniors and seniors, paid internship stipends, housing scholarships, a new Living Learning Community, and we are just getting started. By the end of the semester, we will provide the campus an update on our latest plans, which will support student success and retention and advancements in our commitment to supporting a diverse, equitable and inclusive campus. All of these efforts are connected to the same goal: attracting, retaining and graduating students from all backgrounds who are prepared for meaningful careers and lives well lived. We are committed to our vision of social mobility and inclusion by ensuring access and success for historically underrepresented populations.
Are we becoming a stronger University? At the most fundamental level, it is clear that we continue to provide an exceptional student experience and give them a greater return on their investment. Our research and creative scholarship mission is stronger than ever. We are responding to the needs of our students by aligning resources to their needs, creating the spaces they need to belong and providing a 21st century education. We’ve launched a comprehensive campaign anchored by the largest gift in the history of American public higher education and we are beginning to revitalize our culture, informed by data and your perspectives.
We are taking our fate in our own hands and we're changing our destiny. My call to each and every one is to embrace the idea that there is only one direction: forward into a bright future. If we can agree on that and continue the tenacity, ingenuity and commitment to our purpose that we have demonstrated over and over again in the last two years, we will be unstoppable and will achieve our vision together.
Thank you for your time today and for all you do to ensure that all may learn at Western Michigan University.