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Words from Waller

October 12, 2022

Dear Willamette community,

Strategic planning is about gaining and maintaining competitive advantage. What does Willamette do better than any other university? How does Willamette position itself in the universe of higher education institutions? How does Willamette, through our curricular and co-curricular programs, seek to provide more value to our students than our competitors? What choices can we make to ensure that our graduates fulfill our mission and lead lives of achievement, contribution and meaning?

Willamette's new strategic plan has three pillars that help clarify our competitive advantage. I’ve discussed the first two pillars in previous issues of Words from Waller. The third strategic pillar is, in my opinion, the one that most strongly differentiates us from almost every other college and university in the country, and is at the heart of what makes a Willamette education truly transformative: cross-university integration across disciplines in a way that centers the student experience.

Because universities are large, complex, and relatively opaque institutions, it may not be obvious just how unusual Willamette's emerging structure is compared to other universities, and why our structural difference is so important. But make no mistake: Willamette is building a new-model university for the 21st century, educating a broader range of students for leadership across civil society, and preparing those graduates for complex challenges exemplified by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The university we need today is as different from a research-dominant multiversity developed to meet the national security needs of the cold-war era as that mid-20th century model was from the 19th-century rural liberal arts colleges.

Many of those 19th century liberal arts colleges are still around, of course, and are stand-alone versions of our College of Arts and Sciences. Developed largely for the elite, at their best they continue to be superb providers of undergraduate liberal arts education, disproportionately educating, for example, future PhD recipients in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. But the lack of faculty with professional expertise and the challenges of hiring even in areas as close to the liberal arts as computer science and statistics have limited their ability to prepare students directly for participation in much of the modern economy.

The great 20th century research universities also continue to thrive as powerful engines of knowledge creation and economic development. But as educational institutions, particularly at the undergraduate level, their limitations are evident. Highly-siloed into isolated schools and sometimes even isolated departments that are structured to meet the needs of the sponsored research and graduate education that dominate their budgets and staffing, many offer excellent disciplinary education for undergraduates but only incoherent "general education" programs and limited opportunities for structured work outside the major and especially outside the individual school in which a student is enrolled. Interdisciplinarity at large research universities is generally pursued in research centers, far removed from the undergraduate experience.

Without diminishing the value of the liberal arts college for certain students, or the importance of the large research university for fundamental research and for economic development, neither of these models offers an attractive foundation on which to build a great university committed to educating students for the complex needs of our century.

If our mission is transformative education that connects liberal education to professional practice, our most important strategic decision is to acknowledge that the best path forward for Willamette is to emulate neither of these two models. There is comfort in conformity, and especially since many of Willamette's faculty (including myself) were trained in research universities, there is a pull towards recreating the highly decentralized, siloed school and department structures with which we became familiar. It is a path we must resist.

Years ago, Willamette’s joint degree programs were distinctive, high-quality examples of how faculty collaborations across school boundaries allow us to build pathways inaccessible to our competitors. Today, our ambitions for what we can accomplish with integrated planning are much greater. Already launched are distinctive programs drawing on faculty expertise across disciplines, like Public Health; Politics, Policy, Law & Ethics; and Sustainability. New programs like Business Administration and Data Science are offered by professional faculty but are strongly grounded in the liberal arts core of the College of Arts & Sciences. The addition of PNCA to Willamette last year has launched numerous explorations of how art and design education can lift programs across the university, and how the rest of the university can expand and strengthen PNCA.

Universities are complex entities, and Willamette’s competitive position in the market derives from a variety of strategic decisions as well as an attention to effectiveness and quality of our operational work. One reason people choose Willamette is, of course, our faculty's renown for teaching quality. But in the long run, our ability to attract not just students but also the next generation of great faculty will depend on our commitment to a compelling common mission and our ability to do things at Willamette that are challenging and exciting.

At this moment, it is fortuitous that the kind of education society needs for its leaders is precisely the kind of education Willamette is uniquely positioned to provide. By leaning into this opportunity, we can ensure that Willamette leads and thrives well into our third century.

non nobis solum,

Willamette University

Office of the President

Salem Campus

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