Transformational Initiative Fund

A campuswide call for ideas that transform the way Western Michigan University serves students has led to an announcement by WMU President Edward Montgomery of funding for two initiatives, designed to build a stronger sense of belonging and community among all students, beginning this fall.

In a message to the campus community Jan. 9, Montgomery unveiled two endeavors that he will fund through a Transformational Initiatives Fund he set up last fall—Success @ WMU and Esports @ WMU. Matching dollars will be added by WMU vice presidents of the relevant areas.

Success @ WMU

Success @ WMU is a large-scale campus commitment to build on past WMU success with small learning communities. The initiative ensures that all new undergraduate students have access to a learning community led by a peer leader assisted by faculty and staff. The learning communities are intended to not only help welcome and orient new students, but also aid them in building skills essential for success in college. Funded by Montgomery with $818,500 and matched with an equal amount from the leadership in Academic Affairs along with two other WMU areas, the effort will use the University's successful track record in supporting such groups as student athletes, former foster care youth, honors students, first-generation college students and Kalamazoo Promise students.

Success @ WMU will dramatically expand the capacity of such groups—going from 1,650 currently served to 5,500 by this fall. It will offer every incoming undergraduate the benefits of a strong yearlong community connection within the University. The effort will apply the lessons already learned in a comprehensive way so that the outcomes for all new undergraduates might mirror the higher retention and graduation rates experienced by students already served by WMU learning communities.

Esports @ WMU

Esports @ WMU is a pilot effort that will extend the community-building effort to students' recreational hours, with WMU becoming one of a relatively small number of colleges and universities nationwide to formally sponsor video gaming. At WMU, video gaming will get a boost as the University designates an existing location to equip with 22 stations that can be used in the short term for competitions and skill development at the club sport level.

With 100 million monthly participants in games like "League of Legends" and a global audience expected to grow to 580 million by 2020 this investment in a state-of-the-art esports facility represents an opportunity to enhance the out-of-class experience for students from around the world and potentially lead to the development of academic programming designed to meet the career demands of what is projected to become a $1.5 billion industry by 2020. The intent is for the University to open its gaming facility this fall and make it available in the future to community groups. Montgomery will provide $250,000 for esports. The amount will be matched.

"In each initiative, we will be very intentional about creating communities that speak directly to student interests and needs," says Montgomery. "One is a large, comprehensive approach to meeting the complex academic, civic, social, personal development, health and emotional needs of students by providing each with a small community that will become their touchstone. The second, a smaller effort, will focus on one of our students' most popular recreational activities to build a competitive technology community that can have relevance academically, professionally and socially."

Call for campus input in October

Montgomery issued his call for "good ideas" from the campus grassroots community during his first State of the University address in October. He urged campus community members to develop proposals for initiatives that would:

  • Improve retention and six-year graduation rates.
  • Develop alternative revenue streams to reduce reliance on tuition and state funding.
  • Make WMU the school of choice for students, faculty, staff and community organizations.

The request for such ideas attracted more than 60 proposals developed by faculty and staff. The Success @ WMU initiative, Montgomery notes, is actually a compilation of 10 of those proposals—all that focused on building community in a way that will better support students as they work to succeed academically, develop healthy lifestyles, forge strong campus relationships and develop good social skills.

Coordination, expansion of student connections

Significant elements of the Success @ WMU initiative include upperclassmen who will become Peer Academic Leaders, or PALs; an effort to develop faculty and staff "champions" to help lead learning communities focused on different topics; reinforcement of academic mentoring in courses known as gateway courses; and careful coordination with WMU's Signature Program, which helps students use cocurricular activities to focus and document specialty areas within their disciplines.

An inventory of current on-campus mentoring and learning communities will begin immediately to ensure coordination of existing efforts with new ones. Also, this spring, up to 220 peer academic leaders will be hired and trained so they will be ready to serve with the start of the fall semester. With a ratio of about one peer academic leader to every 22 students, the goal is to have regular communication with new undergraduates throughout their first two semesters on campus.

Together, the components of this initiative represent a comprehensive strategy to:

  1. Ensure all incoming students are better connected campus resources.
  2. Increase student employment and participation in learning communities to improve performance and retention.
  3. Improve grit and perseverance.
  4. Enhance the campus gateway course initiative.
  5. Enhance faculty and staff participation in learning communities.

Growing use of technology for sport, recreation and skill development

The esports initiative responds to growing student involvement with video gaming and the emergence of gaming as a recognized "sport," that often attracts larger campus audiences in person and online than traditional professional or collegiate varsity sports.

"In this case, we're recognizing a trend that is already strong on our campus and choosing to make it part of our infrastructure," Montgomery says. "Rather than a solitary activity, the organized competitive aspect allows the campus to embrace, sanction and leverage gaming as a community activity."

Across the nation, a growing number of higher education institutions are embracing and leveraging gaming as a supported activity. The number of schools with competitive varsity programs is now near 50, with such programs attracting a growing number of women students as well as men. Gaming technology and skills have been the subject of recent initiatives by the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is also being discussed for inclusion as an Olympic sport.

Implementation on target for start of fall 2018 semester

Both initiatives funded through the Transformational Initiatives Fund will be fully implemented this fall. Much of the preparation will begin immediately.

During the review process for 60-plus proposals submitted, a number of additional ideas were proposed that Montgomery calls "good, solid concepts that will improve campus life and service to our students, and simply need to be implemented." Five of those will be implemented, though funded separately by campus leadership.