2023-24 State of the University Address

  • Video of 2023-24 State of the University address

President Edward Montgomery delivered the 2023-24 State of the University address on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, in the WMU Student Center ballroom. You can read the speech in its entirety below.

Breaking through barriers 'So That All May Learn'

Good afternoon and thank you for being here for the 2023 State of the University address. For 120 years, Western has responded to the contemporary needs of our community while preparing our students to meet the challenges of tomorrow. At each step, we have built upon the foundation laid by our forebearers while being responsive to emerging societal needs. Today, I want to lay out a vision that bridges where we started, where we are today and, most importantly, where we’re going. 

Let’s start at the beginning: “So that all may learn.” Founded 120 years ago atop Prospect Hill as a Normal School, Western was then charged with empowering the next generation of teachers to respond to the growing need for an educated citizenry. As we changed and evolved from a Normal School to a college to a university and finally to a comprehensive high-research university, the belief in the power of education to better the lives of our students and the world around us stayed at the core of who we are. The breadth of subjects we explored and the methods we employed in our inquiry, discovery and creativity may have changed but, fundamentally, our mission remains to educate, to enlighten and to make the world better. We are still the place where answers to our most vexing questions are sought, where we push forward the frontiers of knowledge and understanding of the human condition, and where students come to better themselves in pursuit of meaningful careers and fulfilling lives.  

Our context has evolved since the dawn of the 20th century through the surge of GI enrollments in the post-World War II era, the coming of age of the Baby Boom generation in the '60s and '70s to the emergence of Gen X, millennial and Gen Z generations and the expanding international presence on campus.  

After decades of the wind at our backs, today we advance our cause in the second-most challenging higher education state in the nation. The rate of decline in high school graduates in Michigan for the next few years is predicted to be exceeded only by New Hampshire. Further, we are in a time of growing skepticism about the value of post-secondary education. Pew and Gallup studies have revealed a steady decline in public confidence in American higher education since 2015. The impact has been real. In fall 2013, two-thirds of Michigan high school graduates started college—69,000 of them. By fall 2022, that figure had dropped by two-thirds to 53%, with only 53,000 Michigan students enrolling in college. In just a decade, the in-state college-going population has dropped by nearly 25%.

On top of this, COVID-19 posed its own challenges for us as individuals and collectively for us as a University. We’ve not only met those challenges together, we’ve also prevailed together. Last year we posted a 1.1 percentage point gain in market share for new undergraduates. This year, new student enrollment is up 2%. Overall graduate student enrollment is up 7.2%, another record. And first-to-second year retention reached 79.8%, a rate exceeded only once in the past 23 years. 

We’re not just attracting students, we’re empowering them to cross that graduation stage. We’ve posted our highest six-year graduation rate in the last 30 years. Our year-over-year improvement was 2.7 percentage points. What this means is: We graduated 220 more students from our 2017 cohort compared to the cohort prior. These individuals' lives have been forever changed with the opportunities and benefits that come from attaining a degree. As we all know, 9 of 10 Bronco graduates are employed quickly, working in their chosen fields and in jobs that they like (2021-22 Career Outcomes Report).  

Make no mistake, our students' achievement is shared. Each of us in our various roles supported our students in accomplishing these record-breaking milestones. The adage that it takes a village is true. Indeed, our WMU community is as large and diverse as a small city. Some of us educate, mentor and create new knowledge. Others create the IT and physical infrastructure needed to deliver our mission while others keep our campus beautiful, clean and safe. Some raise our profile, tout our accomplishments, nurture important relationships with donors and the community, and recruit our students. Others provide financial aid, health care, food services and athletic and artistic entertainment. You heat our buildings and set expectations for our students and employees to ensure this is a great place to learn, work and play. And you provide experience-driven opportunities and connect our students to employers to ensure they see the fruits of their investment here.  

Each day of your service moves our Broncos one step closer to pursuing their dreams, discovering their purpose and living fulfilling lives. It’s what we want for every single student who comes to us so full of promise and ready to pursue their goals. 

As a top-tier research University, we are also advancing the frontiers of knowledge. Externally funded research expenditures saw a 24% increase over the previous fiscal year, totaling $35.3 million, which is a high in at least the past 21 years. Total awards, meanwhile, reached $41.9 million, an 18% increase over the previous fiscal year. Western researchers were also issued five patents in fiscal year 2023 for their inventions. 

WMU scholarly excellence is also demonstrated in the myriad papers we publish, the books we write, the exhibits we curate, the patients we help and the concerts we perform. It can be seen on a variety of national and international fronts, including two of the U.S. Department of State’s highly competitive Fulbright Specialist Awards, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award winner, a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship, a National Humanities Center fellowship and a highly competitive research fellowship through the Center on Public Diplomacy. The Human-Machine Communication journal, edited by faculty in our School of Communication, has in just three years risen to become among the top 3% most-cited journals in the field.  

Our faculty are collaborating on increasing interdisciplinary innovations that integrate the research, education and career readiness components of our mission. For example, an interdisciplinary team from the departments of entrepreneurial engineering and engineering management and biological sciences have created the STEM Workforce Collaboratory. They secured external funding from the U.S. Department of Education to advance WMU’s STEM programs and enhance the STEM pipeline and workforce.  

We have so many reasons to be proud of our success as a research University and as an opportunity University. And while I would love to tell you that this means the challenges are behind us, they’re not. Enrollment is and will remain a challenge as projections show high school graduates in Michigan will fall another 5% in the next five years.  

But even in the face of this challenge, I have every confidence that our future is bright and hopeful. Seems a little audacious, doesn’t it? I have concrete reasons for optimism. We are learning as an organization. We’re becoming exceptionally good at rising to challenges, and our latest accomplishments prove that we can gain real momentum even in the face of headwinds. While we have momentum on many of the most impactful dimensions of our mission to enrich students’ lives and pursue new knowledge, now is not the time to pause. Rather, it's the time to push the throttle forward.  

Here's a short story to illustrate my point. In the podcast American Innovations, they recount that historic moment and the days that led up to the first supersonic flight. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 on Oct. 14, 1947. It was his ninth flight. Other pilots and programs had also tried the same feat and failed, some disastrously. During a horseback ride two days before, Yeager was thrown from the horse and broke two of his ribs. The accident threatened his flight because of the excruciating pain that most assuredly comes with the excessive turbulence as he approached sound barrier, Mach 1, due to tremendous atmospheric pressures created at that speed. Additionally, the X-1 was launched by being dropped from a B-29 bomber. Yeager had to crawl down into the plane and then lock the cockpit door with his right hand by himself. But he couldn’t reach around as normal because of his injury. So, he took a broom handle into the cockpit so he could latch the door with his left hand.  

So, there he sits, broken ribs, cockpit latched, when the plane drops from the B-29. But a bad drop led to a near stall. He had to burn up 70% of his fuel just to get the Bell X-1 into position. At that point, he had one chance: now or never. He pushed the throttle forward, fired the third rocket chamber and the plane surged forward with ferocious shaking as it approached Mach 1. An earlier test pilot described these terrifying moments “as like trying to fly a straw in a hurricane.” But then, suddenly, it was calm. Yeager had punched through the sound barrier at Mach 1.06.

It was an incredible feat that paved the way for 70 years of aeronautical innovation. Yeager and his team’s success rested on the efforts of many who came before them, but their perseverance through eight failed attempts, broken ribs, myriad practical challenges and a bad drop made history.

There are parallels in our journey. First, like Yeager, we have learned that success isn’t easy. that we must develop novel solutions and be brave in the face of potential and sometimes actual failure. Second, like Yeager and his team, we too are aiming to do something we’ve never done. 

We are proving to our students, their families, Michiganders, our alumni and strategic partners that we are a University on the move and that, like the Avis campaign from the '60s said, “We try harder.” Now is the time to push farther. 

Reaching new heights is critical to our “so that all may learn” mission. Reaching higher is who we are at this institution in pursuit of excellence. Reaching higher will help us thrive in our intensely competitive landscape. 

Let’s first think of our students: They come here wanting to gain an education and earn a degree. Let’s dedicate ourselves to helping students earn what they came for—not by lowering the bar but by providing support so that they reach higher. When I went to college, it was not unusual for a dean to stand before a first-year class and say, “Everyone, look to your left and your right. One of the three of you will not be here next year.” Low retention was sometimes a perverse point of pride, and elitism was defined by keeping people out. That’s not who we are or what our students need from Western. We should not perpetuate that failed, exclusionary model; we must be proactive in addressing our students’ needs—being among the best at that, now that can be our point of pride.  

Indeed, this is a goal to which our community has already committed itself. To develop the 2022-32 Strategic Plan, hundreds of faculty, staff and students spent a year charting our future course. Academic excellence emerged as the first goal in the plan, with student success goals of improved retention and graduation rates as our objective measures of success.  

As the cost of a college education has been shifted from the public to the students and their families, success outcomes are weighing heavily in their choices. It looms large in various rankings and is part of the information the federal government provides to FAFSA completers. Consequently, as we graduate more students, we will also become more competitive and attractive to future students.  

Today, we stand in the middle of the pack among public universities, but I’d like to challenge us to move up to third among public universities in Michigan in student success over the next decade. Let’s first aim to achieve a 62% six-year graduation rate by 2027-28. That’s four years from now and halfway through the Strategic Plan. This goal would require us to improve at an average pace of 1.5 percentage points each year. On the heels of a 2.7 percentage point increase this past year, that feels realistic. Let’s aim to keep the throttle open and increase it to 68% by 2032-33, thereby meeting our goal.   

To ensure we are making progress toward that graduation goal, let’s ascend from our record 80% retention rate to 84% by 2027-28, with an average increase of one percentage point each year over the next four years. But, again, we had a 3.3 percentage point increase this year alone. We cannot be content there, by 2032-33 we should be decidedly third in the state among comprehensive universities in Michigan for both retention and graduation rates. 

Never losing site of the “all” in “so that all may learn,” we must also commit ourselves to improving six-year graduation rates among underrepresented groups. We must commit to increasing graduation rates among our Black and African American students by 8 percentage points by 2027-28 and another 9 percentage points by 2032-33. Among Latino students, we will improve graduation rates by 4 percentage points by 2027-28 and another 6 points by 2032-33. Both these goals will close the equity gap while also placing our six year-graduation rates for these student populations at third in the state.  

Today, we stand less than one percent from our highest watermark for six-year graduation rates. The goals before us now are our new “sound barriers” and we must break through. While I can’t promise smooth air, our students and the Bronco community are all counting on us.

We will do well by doing good. Improved student success will generate a virtuous cycle where we raise retention, lose fewer students, elevate our reputation, attract more new students and increase revenue. The three R's of retention, reputation and revenue are intertwined and we’re starting to see positive results.

We are in our third year without a budget cut. Before 2020-21, we experienced a budget cut in seven of the preceding nine years. Our recent improvement in retention and graduate enrollment helped us exceed our budget assumption for fall revenue this year by $3.5 million—excess dollars which were returned to the colleges to be used at their discretion.  

Further, if we want to achieve the retention goals set out today, it's estimated that by 2027-28, that midpoint, WMU would have an additional $32 million more in revenue.  

These additional resources will allow us to invest in our faculty and staff and to further our mission as a student-centered public research University. We will need to continue to work together on faculty and staff morale and engagement to ensure that our policies and procedures are equitable and to continue to make investments in the well-being of our community. We have spent the past year working on the results of the Employee Engagement Survey and beginning the implementation of the recommendations of the Racial Justice Advisory Committee. I also look forward to collaborating with the Faculty Senate Research Policy Council and Executive Board on new policies and procedures governing the Faculty Research and Travel Fund. While this is but one source from throughout the University for research support, I am confident we can come together around new policies and enhanced resources that allow us to advance our research capacity and goals.  

Now some may say we are too ambitious or that our goals take us into unfamiliar territory. Well, Broncos do hard things, and we have become courageous change makers. Our success so far shows that. In fact, you could argue that we are in the change-making business.  

Every day, we aim to make the world better. That comes in the form of new discoveries or works of art that move us to better thinking, better solutions and a better understanding of our world. We see it when we improve a student’s life and make their world bigger through opportunity.  

This epitomizes what being a responsive university means. 

Being responsive to the needs of students and society in an ever-changing world doesn’t mean letting go of our foundations. It means building on who we are and leading with our strengths.  

We are building on our success with the historic Empowering Futures Gift. It’s already fueling support for our enrollment and retention success, while also closing equity gaps for Pell Grant-eligible students, first-generation students and those from marginalized communities.  

Ensuring student success isn't a one-size-fits-all endeavor. We need solutions to ensure college accessibility. And we understand that even when enrolled, the road to success can have a variety of obstacles. So, with Empowering Futures initiatives, we’re taking a wraparound approach to remove those obstacles and educate students holistically.

On the financial front, to make Western more accessible, we created the Bronco Promise, providing free tuition for Michigan students with great financial need. Our inaugural class of scholars already posted higher academic achievement compared to a comparable group from the prior year. Additionally, housing scholarships paired with a Living Learning Community were introduced to provide both financial and social support. Students who took part in this program exceeded our first time in any college (FTIAC) record-breaking retention rate by an additional 6 percentage points and the gains for Black, African American and Latino students were even bigger. 

Meanwhile, the new Navigator Network is providing unprecedented one-on-one holistic support. Staff and students in Merze Tate College and several offices—the dean of students, diversity and inclusion, student engagement, University recreation and financial aid—all work together to provide wraparound support to our students, ranging from simple reminders to register for classes or to use academic support resources to addressing acute mental health or other issues that could disrupt a student’s progress to graduation. The Student Success Hub is a highly sophisticated piece of technology that allows navigators, academic advisors and other support staff to have a 360° view of a student in real time. Referrals and follow ups that were previously handled through emails, phone calls and spreadsheets can now be customized in a single place allowing for customized services and advice for every undergraduate student in alignment with their circumstances. 

To reduce those disruptors to student progress that may occur outside of the classroom, we have also committed new resources to counseling care and peer educators to address the student mental health crisis, while our expanded Essential Needs program combats food insecurity and emergency financial needs. The Strategic Plan work groups also urged the campus to adopt the Okanagan Charter, which is an international framework for health-promoting universities as it provides a blueprint for the holistic education ambitions set out in the Strategic Plan. 

Earlier this month, the President’s Cabinet endorsed and trustees approved our adoption of the Okanagan Charter and in just a few weeks, we’ll hold a signing ceremony. We aim to be one of approximately 25 universities in the country to commit ourselves to a campus culture of compassion, well-being and equity; improved health for the people who live, learn, work and play on our campuses; and strengthen the ecological, social and economic sustainability of our communities and wider society. 

To improve that school-to-career transition for our students, we are also using the Empowering Futures Gift to fund the Broncos Lead Internship Program. 

What sets this program apart is how we've structured it to ensure a high standard on both sides. Instead of paying employers directly, we reimburse them for the student wages. At key milestones along the way, not only the student but the employer is assessed for adhering to an elevated level of quality.

This unique model sets an unprecedented level of partnership and accountability, benefiting both the students and the employers. Our participating employers may not have the resources to pay their student interns. So, we're simultaneously enriching our students and the greater community. Almost 90 students and 40 employers took part this past summer as the program’s inaugural cohort, and we aspire to expand that number to 150 students in the upcoming year, thanks to philanthropy. 

As Mary Howe, a public and nonprofit administration major who was an intern at a local organization said, "I've taken grant writing at Western and know how to do it, but I've never had a cause to apply that knowledge." Mary said her grant writing assignments “100% connects the dots between what we learned and what we need to know. It really is another step up on the ladder to getting into a career."

President Montgomery speaking with passion at the podium.

Experience-driven learning

Mary’s story is one of so many that are remarkable and unsurprising at the same time. Internships are but one example of the applied or experiential learning experiences offered at WMU. Scholars going back to John Dewey have known the power of experiential or active learning and the belief in the power of applied learning harkens back to Western's founding as a normal school when, according to campus history, "Education students were required to complete intern or student teaching.”  

Today, more than 9 out of 10 Broncos, both undergraduate and graduate, will have engaged in some form of experience-driven learning by the time they graduate. That learning has great pedagogical value. Some of these experiences create career pipelines for our students and meet the needs of our state and employers. Consider our Cold Case Program.  

Over the past four years, under the leadership of Professor Ashlyn Kuersten, our students have played a vital role in helping the Michigan State Police, or MSP, solve decades-old cold cases. This partnership has achieved remarkable success. They’ve expanded the capacity of our state police detective force and helped them already solve two homicides.  

This collaboration has been so valuable to MSP that earlier this month, they announced a new paid cadet program. The state police will pay our students for their help cracking cold cases. It was a proud moment as the first class of Western cadet detectives received their state police employee pins. In addition to paid learning, our students will also have a direct pipeline into employment at MSP. 

Psychology major Jacqueline Chavarria said one of her greatest experiences was when the detective on her case asked for her opinion on possible people of interest to interview. “This was a pivotal moment for me,” Jacqueline explained. “It made me realize that I had an impact on the cases that we were working on.” 

This is but one example of our innovative experiential-learning programs. 

Under the leadership of Dr. Doug Lepisto and Dr. Derrick McIver in our leadership and business strategy program, students developed the Bronconess Wine brand. It’s still marketed by students today and proceeds go to student scholarships. Students today can also partner with colleagues from Kalamazoo College at Sleeping Giant Capital, a private equity firm to work on real-life projects for corporate clients. Another business school example is the TechNext program under Instructor Barcley Johnson who takes our students to visit startup companies run by alumni and others in Silicon Valley opening their eyes to opportunities they never considered before.   

In the College of Aviation, Delta Propel, United Aviate, Skywest and AAR all offer direct-to-career programs that provide students with industry exposure and experience before they graduate.  

In the College of Fine Arts, students work on design problems alongside local employers through the Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation. In the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, our MODA registered student organization plans and organizes a first-class fashion show that gives students practical experience in the business and design aspects of the industry.  

In equally impactful and more traditional ways, students are changing the lives of elementary and secondary students, patients in clinical care units and beneficiaries of local nonprofits before graduation. In all these examples, experience-driven learning, paired with strong external partnerships, have brought added resources that enhance our students’ experience and make them—and us—more competitive.

Experience-driven learning is in our DNA. Amplifying this strength is one of the objectives designed to drive our Academic Excellence goal in the Strategic Plan. It calls on us to, “Engage every student in experiential education to foster lifelong learning, deepen their understanding through application, increase connections between WMU and the broader community and prepare for meaningful, long-lasting careers.”

Our Strategic Plan is an expression of our collective ambitions. A broad cross-section of our campus community was engaged in its development, and it provides a path for us to navigate through challenging headwinds. To further this goal, today I am announcing two new ventures designed to fuel our ambitions and innovation. They are significantly supported by the Empowering Futures Gift as well as strategic support from several campus divisions.  

First, Experience-Driven Learning Accelerator Grants will provide financial resources for experience-driven efforts. These grants will help programs that are already well established scale up their impact on students and their success. Proposals must complement a curricular offering, have had at least two semesters of successful experience, show how they integrate classroom knowledge with an applied need and advance career-readiness and student retention and graduation. Initially, we will award up to 10 grants, ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.  

Second, Experience-Driven Incubator Grants will provide new resources for emerging experience-driven programs. Their purpose is to help new or nascent programs establish a strong footing and grow. Applicants must provide a plan for a program that, again, will integrate classroom knowledge with an applied need, advance career-readiness and student retention and graduation. Again, we intend to offer up to 10 grants ranging from $5,000 to 25,000. 

For both grants, I encourage you to integrate our crucial research mission. The STEM Collaborative I mentioned earlier provides a fitting example of how this might be carried out. Expanding undergraduate research is another exciting possibility. Ideas that could also lead to more external research funding will receive strong consideration in both grants. 

I hope you are as excited about these opportunities as I am. I can’t wait to see your ideas.

President Montgomery giving his State of the University address.


Now, for some final thoughts before we enjoy refreshments and fellowship together. We must never lose sight of our immense potential and power to transform lives through the educational experiences we offer here at Western. Each student who joins our campus comes with their own dreams, goals and a desire to discover their purpose to make a difference in their life. Indeed, when students join our community of learners, we tell them they are beginning a journey to prosperity and a life well lived. I want to tell you one last story of a Bronco who took that assertion to heart. Aisha Thaj graduated in 2021 as part of the first cohort of product design program students.

In 2020, she landed a graphic design internship in Texas at a leading aircraft manufacturer. Aisha looked for ways to help the company, in business since 1935, and potentially level up. Her ingenuity and Bronco boldness, combined with the high-quality education she received at Western, gave Aisha the courage to offer a suggestion to the company’s CEO.

“Have you considered the potential of having a designer on the engineering innovation side—the concepting side? That’s really where implementing design can set you apart from the rest of the industry,” our student explained.

This audacious Bronco’s single question as a student ultimately propelled her into a position as Bell Flight’s first industrial design engineer even before she crossed the stage at Miller Auditorium in 2021. It was one of three positions Aisha had to choose from at Bell after impressing the CEO.

Small world? Bell, a company globally renowned for its innovation, was the company that built the X-1. So, while Chuck Yeager flew Bell’s X-1 to break the sound barrier 76 years ago, our Bronco Aisha Thaj is today pioneering the future aesthetics of Bell’s helicopters and other vehicles that use vertical lift technology.  

Aisha’s story reflects what our University stands for: Preparing each of our students for a meaningful career and a life well lived, creating novel solutions for problems and making the world better. This is why we must be undaunted as we break through our own version of sound barriers. We can redefine our boundaries and demonstrate that our credo "So that all may learn" is not just a possibility at Western, it’s a promise. 

Thank you.