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Words from Waller

September 7, 2022

Dear Willamette community,

Even before beginning to map Willamette's future with a new strategic plan, it is worth stepping back to consider what has made this university so important to its graduates and to the Pacific Northwest for nearly two centuries.

Our purpose can be stated simply: Willamette exists to provide its graduates, through education in the liberal arts and professional practice, the skills and capacities they will need to be active and effective participants in the common project of building stronger communities and a better world.

The same, of course, could be said of many higher education institutions, but our strategic plan calls out three commitments—to service, to action, and to access—that I believe have always been intrinsic to Willamette, that set Willamette apart from its peers, and that make Willamette worthy of my own commitment and I hope yours as well.

Commitment 1: Service. The first commitment is contained within Willamette’s motto, non nobis solum nati sumus. I suspect the motto was first chosen to explicitly align the university with the Methodist rule of "doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all," but of course it arises from a far older Greek Stoic cosmopolitanism that transcends any particular religion or denomination. "Not unto ourselves alone are we born," said Cicero, “our country and our friends have a share in us.”

The idea that education is a private good, to be measured solely by the value it provides a student, has been ascendant in the United States for several decades. The government even provides tools to help predict exactly what financial return-on-investment each institution and program can be expected to provide. At Willamette we certainly seek to help our graduates lead lives of personal achievement, but as our mission statement proclaims, also of contribution and meaning.

The flurry of colleges and universities founded in the early 19th century was driven by all of these considerations. The development of a successful professional class to serve the growing population of the region was central to the thinking of the Salem-area civic leaders who founded Willamette, which aligned with the Methodist Church’s investment in building new colleges because of a denominational belief in education as a key component of a full spiritual life. Both impulses were amplified by a post-Revolutionary American enthusiasm for education in support of the demands of participatory democracy.

Commitment 2: Action. Perhaps in part because Willamette was concerned with all three of these goals for education from its inception, and was not founded as a seminary like many East Coast schools, Willamette has from the start been focused on a second key commitment: preparing students to turn knowledge into action.

The oldest Faculty in the university is the College of Arts and Sciences, and 19th century visitors wrote in wonder of students doing their Latin and Greek translations in this remote and, at the time, rustic school, but from the beginning liberal education was augmented with development of professional practice: in law, medicine, pharmacy, even metallurgy. While many schools have narrowed their focus and expelled the professions, and many more have diluted or sidelined the liberal arts, Willamette has retained its identity as a "liberal arts university" in which both the importance of liberal education in building broad capacities to "read, write and think" and the importance of education in professional practice are recognized. Indeed, today Willamette is distinguished nationally for its thoughtful integration of the two.

Commitment 3: Access. Finally, a third core commitment at Willamette is to ensure the widest possible access to its educational programs and to being an inclusive community. This is of course a focus of intense work and investment today, as we have in the last decade significantly expanded racial and ethnic diversity, expanded resources for other underserved groups such as neurodivergent students, shifted funding to financial aid to bring in wider socioeconomic diversity, and expanded efforts towards full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ community members.

Although we have made progress, diversity, equity, and inclusion work at Willamette is far from finished. It is also important to understand how the work we do today builds on the work of those who came before, and to understand that by joining the effort to build a more accessible and inclusive Willamette, we are helping the University become a better version of itself.

In fact, when it comes to inclusion Willamette has always been a more radical institution than we sometimes assume, maybe most dramatically in its earliest years. The contrast with schools being founded at the same time in the East is striking. In the post-Revolutionary period, when George Washington spoke of the importance of higher education at his namesake Washington College, and when Thomas Jefferson worked to establish the University of Virginia, they were building institutions to serve wealthy, white, male landowners; neither of those schools accepted either women or black students until the second half of the 20th century.

But Willamette's founders had a very different project in mind. In America, the Methodists built institutions to serve men and women of all social classes, all studying the same curricula. Willamette was the second co-educational university founded in the U.S., not only graduating a woman as its first graduate, but employing a woman as its first full time faculty member. Founded by abolitionists, Willamette was (to the best of my knowledge) only the second institution in the U.S. to explicitly welcome students of all races (the first being Oberlin College). Even though Oregon's racist residency laws limited the effect of that policy, Willamette enrolled its first known Black student in 1870, and two years later (exactly 150 years ago) awarded a medical degree to a Native student and enrolled its first student from Tokyo. Finally, as a frontier school, Willamette worked from the beginning to serve students of all social classes.

From the beginning, Willamette was not a western version of a New England college, aiming to form ministers and prepare gentlemen. It was, and is, a university with an expansive view of what education can do, and who and what education is for.

Now nearly two centuries old, Willamette has never been a perfect institution. But at its best, Willamette lives up to its great ambition: to educate talented students who can and will change the world. At its best, Willamette can be a model for how a values-driven institution can flourish in an ROI-focused world. At its best, Willamette is the Northwest's leading liberal arts university, important both for our region and the world.

Non nobis solum,

Willamette University

Office of the President

Salem Campus

Waller Hall, 5th Floor
900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.