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Words from Waller

October 5, 2022

Dear Willamette community,

At the core of strategic planning are the choices that Willamette makes that differentiate it from the other colleges and universities with which it competes. Last week, I summarized what is perhaps the most important decision that defines us: who do we seek to serve, and how do we create value? The answer is partly explicit in our mission statement, and partly implicit in our organizational structure and facilities. Willamette is committed to high-quality teaching and learning in the liberal arts and the professions, and mostly serves students at one of three distinct life and career stages: full-time, (mostly) traditionally aged undergraduates; full-time early-career professional graduate students; and mid-career professional students with a more flexible array of part-time and low-residency degree and certificate programs. No university can do all things for all potential students, so maintaining our focus on fulfilling our mission allows Willamette to serve its chosen part of the higher education marketplace well.

A second key strategic differentiator for Willamette identified in the new strategic plan is a deep engagement with the Pacific Northwest. The importance of place as something that sets Willamette apart from its competitors first emerged a decade ago, with the articulation of the "pedagogy of place" as a means to deepen student learning through engagement with real problems in real communities. Whether through studies of the ecology of local oak forests, experiences in the immigration law clinic, or embedding in regional angel investment groups, getting outside of the "Willamette bubble" improves the quality of our programs, informs vocational discernment, and helps students understand how the broad intellectual and creative capacities developed in the classroom connect to capacity for action in the world.

Willamette's strategic plan takes this idea a step further, and calls on the university to more actively engage in building two-way relationships with the organizations and communities of our region, and to ask the question "How can Willamette better serve the Northwest?"

As we explore new program development, it is important for us to understand not just our institutional interests, but the evolving needs of the Northwest. We are located in a dynamic, exciting region that is rapidly diversifying in a variety of ways, one that is still transforming from a resource-extraction economy to a creative and technological economy and connecting to the increasingly important Pacific Rim nations much more deeply than other parts of the country. As we build a Willamette for the mid-21st century, how can we build a university that serves this changing region well?

I am occasionally asked whether positioning Willamette as the Northwest's leading private university means we are choosing not to compete at the national or international level. That inference couldn't be more wrong. A close look at most of the greatest colleges and universities in the world will quickly reveal that they are deeply connected to place, sometimes (as in the case of Stanford and Silicon Valley) so much so that it is as hard to imagine the place without the university as the university without the place. College rankings encourage the idea that schools are all trying to do the same thing, with varying degrees of success, but the absurdity of this notion is evident as soon as you start to imagine moving schools out of the context in which they developed. The Rhode Island School of Design transported to Santa Clarita is as hard to imagine as CalArts relocated to Providence.

Willamette draws students from across the country and internationally, and our alumni can be found all over the world. Willamette itself has a strong national reputation, and since the merger with PNCA, we have been drawing attention in higher education circles as a university doing interesting and important things. But as is true for almost every university, the majority of our alumni remain in our general region (76% of our alumni are in the Pacific Northwest), and our value will ultimately be measured by how they flourish and ultimately contribute to the area.
A few years ago, Gene Tobin, a retired university president and Mellon Foundation official asked a group of college presidents, “Who would miss your institutions if you were gone?” If we are valued only by ourselves and our alumni, we are failing. Our ambitions must be larger. For Willamette, it isn't enough to build a great university in the Northwest, or even of the Northwest. Willamette must be a university for the Northwest.

And that means taking seriously our responsibility to turn outwards, to engage with our region, and to really listen to what we hear and respond to what we learn. It will make us a stronger university, a better university, and ultimately a university more attractive to the students we hope to serve.

non nobis solum,

Willamette University

Office of the President

Salem Campus

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