What a difference a year makes! The end of the spring semester is always a time to pause and reflect, but it is especially meaningful this year. Twelve months ago, a successful year was far from certain—in fact, uncertain described much of our lives. But today, we can celebrate the conclusion of a very successful, though challenging, year. We have worked together to not only deliver our mission, but also create positive change for our campus community through smart planning and a collective willingness to recalibrate how we do what we do.
Consider a sampling of what we have accomplished by surmounting the challenges imposed by the pandemic this past year:
• When the emergent health crisis forced a quick pivot to distance learning last spring, faculty made the transition in days. Faculty reimagined more than 5,000 course sections for each of our fall and spring semesters.
• We worked together to adjust our academic calendar when we anticipated coronavirus cases would likely surge.
• Staff transitioned to offering telehealth visits, virtual counseling sessions and virtual fitness opportunities.
• From touchless entry to enforcing the safety plan, housing and dining made significant changes to keep our students safe.
• Facilities staff intensified cleaning and implemented a number of innovative strategies to sanitize facilities across campus.
• The Division of Student Affairs held 2,470 events—a 14% increase over the previous academic year—despite the new normal of social distancing and remote interaction.
• With the guidance of University Advancement, we saw a 10% increase in the number of alumni giving back during a period when the nation’s economy underwent transformation and extreme uncertainty.
• Our faculty, students and staff have rebounded their research and creative scholarship efforts. Through the third quarter of the current fiscal year, external awards have already reached the level for all of last fiscal year.
With the difficulties we faced, these accomplishments would simply not be possible without working together.
But that’s not all. We also made meaningful strides in enhancing our communication, collaboration and engagement across campus. It’s worthy of noting that we began strengthening our culture prior to the time when "COVID-19" became part of our daily vocabulary, driven in part by initiatives stemming from the 2019 Employee Engagement Survey. Though coronavirus may have altered our plans and our world, we employed creativity to keep moving in the right direction. Undaunted, we are seeing progress in all divisions and collaboration across units.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion, through the Racial Justice Advisory Committee, brought senior leadership together with faculty, staff and students to collaboratively fight systemic racism. In the Division of Student Affairs, a team representing multiple units began taking a holistic approach to campuswide well-being activities with intentions of amplifying their impact.
The Office of Government Relations focused on building better systems and structures for corporate engagement and partnerships, and the division also undertook WeTalk, a collaboration with students, faculty and staff to offer programs during the pandemic involving student and employee groups. The Office of Research and Innovation (ORI) created remote-work-friendly opportunities for ORI employees to continue to build on their professional knowledge, skills and job effectiveness.
The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics leadership team committed to a strong diversity and inclusion program for student-athletes and all staff called We Must Unite, and individual teams engaged in Sindecuse Health Center trainings on how to become leaders for preventing sexual assault. The Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications has collaborated with marketing and communications leaders in each college and admissions to begin aligning our core messages with their individual point of differentiation.
Office of Academic Affairs leadership brought a campuswide faculty group together to explore opportunities for increasing interdisciplinary programs. One of the group’s first initiatives—an RFP process—drew 69 proposals from 38 departments. And across the academic affairs division, faculty and staff collaborated to host the Higher Learning Commission and launch WMU Essential Studies.
Business and finance leadership has been meeting regularly with employee groups to maintain and strengthen open, two-way communication. The President’s Cabinet engaged in diversity, equity and inclusion training that has enhanced its cultural competency and spurred more collaboration across leadership. As a campus community, we also took time through the Western's Future Focus series to pause throughout the academic year and think about our vision for what's ahead.
As we went through this past year, it would have been understandable if we as a campus had stepped back from enacting the culture we all desire. But we didn’t step back. We stepped forward. Although not exactly as envisioned, we did advance. As we emerge from the pandemic, we will return to a more formalized approach for building our culture together.
This reflection upon our accomplishments comes at a time when we’re preparing to celebrate the culmination of this academic year with a time-honored event that never fails to raise everyone’s spirit: graduation. The Class of 2021 persevered through the difficulties of this year, demonstrating the grit and flexibility that will serve them well in the future. They built that fortitude and made it to this milestone thanks to your help in all aspects of their Western experience.
I hope you’ll join with our graduates and their families and friends to watch commencement ceremonies this Saturday, May 1. Please visit wmich.edu/commencement to access every college’s ceremony and the spring 2021 commencement program.