Words from Waller

“Words from Waller” is an email from Willamette President Steve Thorsett with his reflections on important university issues, news, and events.

Dear Bearcats,

Last week I wrote about how college rankings flatten the interesting and distinctive aspects of individual schools into a one-dimensional measure of “quality.” Chasing rankings can push schools to make decisions and investments that don’t align with their missions and values.

We know how to rise in the US News list: emulate the “winners,” like Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore. These are terrific schools, of course, but they are designed to serve a narrow slice of the most academically-driven undergraduates. Of the top 25 ranked liberal arts colleges, only Vassar and Smith Colleges match Willamette’s commitment to socioeconomic diversity as measured by the number of Pell-eligible students they serve. Most are in New England - except for three in Southern California - none are west of Iowa, and none share Willamette’s distinctive commitment to the Pacific Northwest and the Pacific Rim.

But more importantly, as an outstanding university Willamette does many things well that most colleges can’t do at all. Did you know that we are the only university in the country that appears both on the US News best liberal arts college list and Forbes’ and Businessweek’s lists of best business schools, or that we have a Law School that has led the state for job placement for six of the last seven years? Or, that our partnership with TIUA is among the oldest and most complex international collaborations in the country? Or, that our new affiliate, the Claremont School of Theology, is one of the best-regarded ecumenical and inter-religious theology schools in the world?

For many years, we have offered joint degree programs that save students time and money in earning both liberal arts and professional degrees. Our most popular joint program, the 3/2 BA/MBA is, in my humble opinion, the best such program in the western United States, and perhaps anywhere. And in the last year, Willamette has made important changes that bring our advantages as a mid-sized university to a much larger undergraduate population. One is the creation of augmented undergraduate majors, like Politics, Policy, Law & Ethics, with requirements that can be fulfilled with courses in the Atkinson and Law schools. Another is the introduction, this year, of a business minor which means that an art history student now has a way to access our excellent Atkinson faculty, with their strength in not-for-profit management, even if they aren’t sure (yet) that they want to add a year and an MBA.

But the most transformative change that will affect how we build distinctive, only-at-Willamette educational programs that span the liberal arts and professions is an innovative faculty governance model introduced last year to augment our three existing schools. For the first time, faculty from two or more schools can come together as co-equal partners in a collaborative group, called a “Committee of Studies,” and offer courses and degrees that draw on the broad resources of the university. This summer faculty from AGSM and CLA developed plans for the first of these, the Committee on Computer, Data, and Information Sciences, which has been approved by our board and our accreditors to offer BS degrees in Computer Science and in Data Science next fall, along with a new MS in Data Science, and a new BS/MS joint degree path in Data Science.

It is a modest first step, but a bold new direction as Willamette defines what it means to be the Northwest’s leading private university.


Dear Bearcats,

In the spring of my junior year in high school, the education editor of the New York Times published a book that would forever change college admissions. Before then, every high school guidance office had their bookshelves filled with enormous paperback books with tiny print and dry program summaries from the thousand or so colleges and universities across the country. Edward Fiske and his team introduced something very different: an irreverent guide to the 265 “best and most interesting” schools in America, with ★ and $ rankings that might belong, instead, in the paper’s restaurant reviews section. The following year, the magazine US News & World Report introduced its famous ranking system, and the NYT guide became the Fiske Guide to Colleges. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today’s prospective college student is deluged with information from all kinds of organizations that have realized that our fascination with “best of” lists is a way to tie their own missions and messages to the college selection process. While almost everyone factors graduation rate into their rankings, for example, each group also rewards particular attributes. US News’ ranking is often considered to measure “prestige,” and they continue to weigh institutional reputation, front-end selectivity, and alumni support. The Wall Street Journal’s ranking ignores all of that, focusing solely on outcome measures, student engagement, financial resources, and diversity. Washington Monthly ranks schools based on contributions to social mobility, research, and public service.

In my thirty-five years in higher education, I have studied and worked at outstanding research universities and intense teaching-focused colleges, in the private and public sectors, in the US and abroad. I know that the institutional diversity of American higher education is what has made it the envy of the world and that any attempt to collapse that diversity down into a single, absolute numerical ranking is utter nonsense. The question any prospective student should ask is not “what is the best college?” or even “what is the best college I can get into?” The right question is “what is the best college for me?” And while cost and selectivity and graduation rates all contribute to the answer, so do things that no ranking adequately captures, like mission, community, and academic rigor. Your own values and priorities probably don’t match those of the editors of US News or the WSJ.

Still, I would never deny the very human fascination with ranked lists, so if you have read this far, you have earned the slightly illicit thrill of celebrating Willamette’s 2020 rankings. From US News, which ranks liberal arts colleges, we were 68th in the nation this year, up from 76th last year and 82nd two years ago. In the Northwest, they have us tied with Reed for second, behind Whitman. Washington Monthly has us at 45th on their national liberal arts college list, second to Reed in the Northwest. And the Wall Street Journal, which throws all types of colleges and universities into a single list, puts us fifth in the Northwest, after the University of Washington, Whitman, Reed, and Seattle.

We can be pleased that they all rank us amongst the very best. But for our own students, alumni, staff and faculty, we aspire always to be #1.

Go Bearcats!


Dear Bearcats,

In last week's Words from Waller I told you about summer progress on new academic initiatives; today I want to talk about our academic and student affairs leaders - the deans.

As most of you know, each of Willamette's school is led by a dean who officially chairs the faculty and is responsible for overseeing the school's curriculum and budget. The dean often represents the school for alumni and donors, employers, and prospective students. We also have a dean of students, with broad responsibility for supporting students beyond the classroom. At Willamette, our academic quality—and our competitive advantage—begins with our outstanding faculty and student support staff. The deans and VPs responsible for hiring them, and for creating the culture and conditions where they can flourish, are a key part of what makes Willamette Willamette.

I wanted to talk about three transitions taking place this year amongst the deans.

First, Mike Hand, who stepped in as interim dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management a year ago, has agreed to remove the "interim" from his title. As the longest-serving faculty member in AGSM, Mike is well-known and well-remembered by nearly every alum of the school. This year he has led AGSM's participation in the university build-out of data science programs, as well as the implementation of the undergraduate business minor. We are grateful that he is willing to step into a longer-term role as dean.

Second, Curtis Bridgeman has let me know that after seven years as dean of the College of Law, he will step down and return to the faculty at the end of this year. Curtis led the school through a very challenging period in legal education, as enrollments shrank here and elsewhere, and then has overseen four consecutive years of growth and expansion at the law school. Among statistics of which he can be justly proud, the Willamette College of Law has led the state in the employment of new law graduates in six of the last seven years. His academic legacies will include the quality faculty he has hired as well as the Business Lawyering Institute, launched in 2017 to implement innovative approaches in the art and practice of business lawyering. A national search for the next dean of the College of Law is currently underway.

Finally, Dean of Students Domanic Thomas left Willamette at the end of July to become Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment at Washington State University in Vancouver. Vice President for Student Affairs Ed Whipple has agreed to fill the dean of students role this year, as he has done before. After 35 years as a dean or VP at universities across the country, Ed plans to transition at the end of the academic year from student affairs to other university initiatives, including some high-priority work relating to the upcoming comprehensive campaign. We will be taking advantage of his advanced planning to do a reconfiguration and merger of the VP and dean of students positions as we begin a search later in the fall.

Under the leadership of our Provost, Carol Long, these three deans, together with CLA Dean Ruth Feingold, have been a remarkably collaborative group, each supporting their own unit but also working together to build a stronger university that better serves all of our students. I am grateful for their service to Willamette and look forward to another productive year together.


Dear Bearcats,

Although the weather argues otherwise, fall semester has begun in all of our schools and suddenly the campus is buzzing again. Summer is deceptively peaceful on campus, but many faculty and staff have been working hard on projects aimed at building a bigger, broader, and, one might even say bolder Willamette University.

First and foremost is the arrival in Salem of the initial students and faculty from the Claremont School of Theology, following the formal affiliation of CST with Willamette last spring. Three CST faculty are in residence this year (in the MICAH Building, between the Hallie Ford Museum and the First United Methodist Church) along with a small number of full-time students, and several additional faculty are visiting biweekly or monthly. Two dozen additional students are currently here for an intensive week of their hybrid-online MDiv program.

A group of undergraduates, under the guidance of CLA Prof. Joe Bowersox, will be using our new “Owl Classroom” this fall to study sustainability with CST professor Philip Clayton and a group of graduate students in Claremont. We expect such collaborative work, in scholarship and service as well as teaching, to expand rapidly ahead of CST's larger move to Salem next summer and to involve many departments and all three schools.

Also this summer, faculty from both AGSM and the CLA have worked with Deans Hand and Feingold to develop curricular plans for new programs in computer and data sciences, following the Board of Trustees’ approval last spring. New majors to be launched over the next year by a cross-school “Committee of Studies” include a BS in Computer Science, a BS in Data Science, and an MS in Data Science. A joint degree pathway that combines a BS and MS in Data Science in four years (including a summer internship) has been proposed.

And finally, this week marks the official launch of our new undergraduate minor in business. Both introductory sections this semester, taught by AGSM Professor Debra Ringold, are at capacity. With a record number of students already choosing our “gold standard” 3/2 BA/MBA program, this new minor gives broader access to AGSM to any CLA student in any major who is interested in an introduction to business, not-for-profit, or governmental management. 

I want to extend my gratitude to all who have been involved in launching these exciting initiatives. There is much more to share, but my goal this year is to communicate with more frequent (and shorter) messages, so I'll save it for next time. Until then, I hope you all enjoy these beautiful last days of August and that your year gets off to a wonderful start.

Go Bearcats!