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Words from Waller

September 21, 2022

Dear Willamette community,

Last week, Provost Long introduced the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a useful framing for Willamette's strategic planning. Together, these 17 goals represent a broad consensus, affirmed by every UN member country, of the most pressing challenges facing the world in the 21st century. Understanding the human and environmental concerns to which the SDGs respond is a vital part of being an educated citizen, and the work involved in addressing these goals will not just demand thoughtful political leaders and governmental and non-governmental organizational managers, but also shape investments in scientific and technological advances, open new opportunities for for-profit business, and lean on artists and storytellers to challenge and, at times, inspire.

At Willamette, we are preparing graduates for a world that is increasingly organizing around large-scale, complex, "wicked problems" that demand cross-disciplinary approaches and depend on cross-cultural and international collaboration even to characterize what a satisfactory "solution" might look like. As I have argued before, neither the narrow 19th century liberal arts college nor the 20th century research university with its deep disciplinary silos is well matched to the challenge of preparing students for this 21st century world. Our students need a university that can bridge liberal education to professional practice--one that develops broad capacities to "read, write and think" while also developing the practical skills to engage in the world. In short, Willamette's mission is to prepare students to turn knowledge into action, and our programs and our academic and administrative structures all need to be aligned to that end.

Today, I'll highlight three examples of how a more deeply integrated Willamette will, over the next few years, seek to better align with the kinds of skills and capacities needed for engagement with the UN SDGs.

A first focus area, already well into development, is big data and human-centered computing. It is a sign of how deeply easy data collection and ubiquitous computing are transforming widely disparate disciplines that the UN has identified connections of "big data" to every one of the SDGs. With our existing strengths in the arts and visualization, humanities, design, computer and data science, and management, Willamette is well-positioned to develop innovative programs that will help to grow an equitable and ethics-aware technology workforce that centers humanity and creativity. The launch of undergraduate and graduate data science degrees, the redevelopment of undergraduate computer science, and planning for the launch of an MS in computer science are first steps; in the long term, our opportunities for true distinction will come through the connection of data and computing to other areas throughout the university.

A second area of focus and growth will be strengthening democratic institutions (SDG 16: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”) Willamette has long been known as a producer of public sector leaders; it has had alumni representatives in Congress in every decade since the 1870s and continuously since 1955, as well as countless state and local level leaders and jurists. Today, in the United States and elsewhere, there is a crisis of confidence in the resilience and effectiveness of democratic governments and community organizations. In the years ahead, Willamette must deepen our historic focus on government by deploying the tools of the humanities and social sciences, law, arts, computation, and management to support and cultivate more effective practitioners and policymakers.

Finally, a third important area of focus in the years ahead will be climate (SDG 13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”). Understandably, public attention is largely directed on the urgent task of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but regardless of the level of success achieved, the inexorable effects of climate change are already substantial. Climate will likely be the dominant story in future historical accounts of the 21st century; the response to climate change will be a dominant force shaping both the environments in which our students live and the economy in which they participate. Climate is deeply interdisciplinary: entwined with topics such as ecosystem integrity, food and water security, public health, geopolitical stability, manufacturing and industry, transportation, and technology. Over the years ahead, Willamette must integrate resources from across the university to prepare students for this complex, cross-disciplinary work.

As Willamette grows in size and complexity, there will be opportunities for investments in many areas and disciplines beyond the three that I have outlined here, especially as they build on our institutional capacity to prepare students for the complex challenges exemplified by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Each of our schools has existing pillars of excellence that we should continue to nurture and celebrate, that set us apart in quality from other institutions and where our alumni have particular success and impact. But as we look a decade or more into the future and ask what society needs from its leading 21st century universities and what Willamette's distinctive structure and strengths can contribute, these three areas—leading a human-centered approach to big data and ubiquitous computing, strengthening democratic institutions on all scales, and addressing the impacts of climate change—will all be core to what makes Willamette important not just to our students and faculty but to 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.