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,
Welcome back and Happy New Year!

I have two quick things to share with you this week. The first is a reminder that this week Willamette is celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The shift in our academic calendar this year allowed us to join the rest of the country in marking the official MLK holiday, but that was only the beginning of a week of activities, which are summarized here.  I draw your particular attention to the annual Into The Streets event on Friday afternoon, when Bearcats go out and make our motto real in service to the broader Salem community.

Second, you may have already seen the exciting announcement that Willamette received a $6 million gift to support students studying public health and related fields. The gift was made in honor of our alumnus Jeff Heatherington '65. Starting with next year's entering class, the gift will fund ten scholarships each year as well as internships and programming related to public health. It will also support the expansion of our health professions advising office, supporting all students interested in related work or graduate study.

Willamette's public health major is brand new, founded by Professor of History, Humanities and American Ethnic Studies Sammy Basu and Associate Professor of Anthropology and African Studies Joyce Millen working with a team of other faculty from the natural and social sciences, law, and management. They have put together a distinctive, "only at Willamette" program that emphasizes equity, advocacy, and leadership, which is already resonating with those who understand the need for a human-centered approach to improving the health of people and communities.

It is more than a half-century since Dr. King said, in a press conference in Chicago, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.” It is good to see Willamette faculty, students, and alumni rededicating themselves to the work of building a more equitable and just world.

Non nobis solum,
Dear Bearcats,

It is a busy week as Willamette prepares for the end of the fall semester and the long winter break. In all of the hubbub, I don’t want to forget an important and bittersweet December event: the closing ceremony for the 31st American Studies Program (ASP) class from TIUA. On Friday, we will say goodbye and good luck to the 91 students we have spent the past year getting to know and who have become a part of our campus community. 

Over the years, more than 3,000 ASP students have come to Willamette for rigorous educational programs that pull them out of the comfort of familiar surroundings, immerse them in an unfamiliar language and culture, and expose them to new ways of thinking, doing, living and learning.  For these visitors from TIU and for their Willamette hosts, the program is an opportunity to build understanding and respect, to work and play together in classrooms, clubs and athletic fields, and to make lasting friendships.

I hope you can join us at the closing ceremony this Friday at 4 p.m. in Hudson Hall to wish the ASP students farewell before they head back to Japan on Saturday. We look forward to welcoming the 32nd cohort of ASP students to campus next February.

In the meantime, I wish all students good luck finishing up finals, and everyone a warm, happy and safe winter break. I hope you return to campus in January rested and refreshed and ready to take on the spring semester. Words from Waller will be back in the New Year.

Go Bearcats!
Dear Bearcats,

The late date for Thanksgiving this year means that we have returned to a campus that is already fully in the swing of the winter holidays. On Monday, several hundred people including alumni spanning eight decades gathered in Portland for our annual Alumni Holiday Party. Tonight we launch the season in Salem with the lighting of our beloved Star Trees.

A highlight for me of the holidays at Willamette is the music - there is a lot of it. I want to draw your attention, though, to two events in particular.

First, tonight the university Wind Ensemble and Jazz Collective will perform in Smith Auditorium right after the Star Trees lighting. This family-focused concert filled with all kinds of holiday music is presented as a gift to the Salem community and is always a lot of fun.

Then, tomorrow and Friday brings the annual Christmas in Hudson concert, performed by Vox, Voce, and Chamber Choir, at 7:30 p.m. each night (tickets are required). This concert grew out of a traditional, 19th century British-style Lessons and Carols service, held in Cone Chapel until 1999, when Hudson Hall was built and the concert was expanded into its current form. Today, people travel from all over the western United States for what are always spectacular, sold-out performances.

Over the years, Christmas in Hudson has showcased the talent of thousands of Willamette students as well as faculty including, this year, Jeanne Clark (narration) and Chris Engbretson (Vox and Voce Director), and performers such as Paul Klemme (organ) and Honey Wilson '00 (piano). But this quintessential Willamette tradition is above all an expression of the singular artistic vision of Prof. Wallace Long, our director of choral activities since 1983, who will retire at the end of this academic year.

For me, the centuries of tradition in the music and readings and the decades of commitment by a truly outstanding Willamette artist-teacher add a special resonance to the transient beauty of the performances by our remarkable choirs. I hope to see you at the concert!

Go Bearcats,

Dear Bearcats,

Search is big business. Google is the most visited website on the internet. Alexa listens to your questions from over a hundred million microphones. With the illusion of anonymity, we ask our devices questions we might never ask another person.
Today’s Atkinson Lecture features a data scientist who has dived into the depths of Google to find new ways to answer questions about our collective inner lives. In his bestselling book, Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz reflects all that data back at us in stories that are sometimes very funny, sometimes very disturbing. Our search queries tell stories of implicit and explicit racism, of dishonesty and hypocrisy, and of sexual insecurity. And they describe an enormous increase in American anxiety that is surprisingly uncorrelated with topics like politics and terrorism.

These vast troves of internet data also teach us deep and important facts about the human condition. Stephens-Davidowitz has shown, for example, that the musical tastes of adult men correspond to the music that was popular when they were between 13 and 16 years old, and of adult women to when they were between 11 and 14. So when they are playing Katy Perry and Lorde at your 50th Willamette reunion, you’ll know why.

Don’t miss what should be a fun and thought-provoking Atkinson Lecture tonight at 7 p.m. in Hudson Hall (if you don't have your tickets yet you can get them at the President's Office, Waller Hall 5th floor, until 5 p.m. or at the event).

See you there,

P.S. - Words from Waller will be on hiatus next week during fall break. I hope you get to enjoy a restful and restorative week. 

Dear Bearcats,
It may "only" be a minor, but the new undergraduate business program is a major opportunity for our students and a really big deal for Willamette.

For as long as most of us can remember, Winter Street has divided Willamette neatly in two. On the east side, one of the nation's finest undergraduate liberal arts colleges. On the west side, the Northwest's oldest law school — long a leader in both faculty scholarship and student success — and the Atkinson Graduate School of Management, recognized year after year as the finest private business school in the Northwest.

Except for the growing number of joint degree students who move from east to west as they progress towards becoming double-Bearcat BA/MBA or BA/JD alumni, the two sides of Winter Street mostly do not mix. For many, there might as well be a wall dividing these three outstanding schools from each other.

The arrival of the business minor (formally known as the minor in business, government, and not-for-profit management) takes a sledgehammer to that wall, opening up access for undergraduates to new classes taught by AGSM faculty. This fall, two sections of Introduction to Management have been offered by former long-time AGSM Dean and current JELD-WEN Professor of Free Enterprise, Debra Ringold, who has been honored with Willamette's United Methodist and Jerry Hudson teaching awards. She will be reprising this course in Spring 2020.

Undergraduates who register this month will also find the first offerings this spring of two new AGSM undergraduate courses. One is on Organizations: Design, Management, and Change taught by Professor Tim Johnson, the Grace and Elmer Goudy Professor of Public Management and Policy Analysis and the director of Willamette's Center for Governance and Public Policy and another winner of the Jerry Hudson teaching award.  The other is Accounting, taught by Professor Romana Autrey, who was this year's Jerry Hudson teaching award winner from AGSM. Three courses, three award-winning teachers!

Next year, these courses will be supplemented by new courses on Finance and on Marketing to round out the initial five courses for the minor. The classes can be taken in any order, including by students who don't intend to do the full program, though students who complete the full minor will have additional access to specialized career services.

At Willamette, the ability to combine any CLA major with an Atkinson minor is a powerful way to blend the lasting power of a liberal education with the career preparation of a management program. For many students, the 3-2 BA/MBA will remain the "gold standard," offering the very best of both schools with significant savings in time and cost over separate BA and MBA programs. But for others who don't want to commit to a fifth year but who envision working after Willamette in business, or perhaps a mission-driven non-profit, or maybe a government agency, the minor could be a valuable head start.

And with the award-winning faculty assigned to teach the inaugural courses, I think you'll find the new minor both intellectually challenging and world-expanding.

Go Bearcats!
Dear Bearcats,

Eight years ago, the first official event I attended as Willamette's new president was a meeting of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in Seattle. The NWCCU is a regional accreditor, one of six such bodies that have supported the unique diversity and strength of the American higher education system since the nineteenth century. Quality is affirmed through peer-review rather than government regulation. From the tiniest religious colleges to the largest state universities, the accreditation system allows disparate institutions of higher education to articulate with high schools regarding entrance requirements, to understand and recognize each other's degrees, and to evaluate transfer credits. And since the GI Bill after WWII and the Higher Education Act in the 1960s, the federal government has allowed students to use federal financial aid only at accredited schools.

At that NWCCU meeting in 2011, the commission approved extending our accreditation for a standard seven-year period, later extended to nine years because we were considered a "low risk" institution. That means we are up for renewal again next summer.

Today through Friday Willamette is hosting a team of eight evaluators sent by NWCCU as the penultimate activity in our accreditation cycle. They have already received and reviewed extensive information about us, produced by teams of faculty and staff and compiled over the last year under the leadership of our senior director for institutional effectiveness Mike Moon and professor of economics Don Negri. Our evaluators, led by the president of Carroll College in Montana, include specialists in everything from university finance to international studies to libraries to student academic support. They will be talking with scores of people here in pre-arranged meetings, and will also have open sessions to meet with students, staff, and faculty. Their goal is to learn as much about us as they can in three days. They will report back to the NWCCU an official recommendation on the extension of our accreditation, which I hope (and expect) will be uncontroversial, and they will also offer us recommendations for strengthening our programs and processes.

This willingness of a visiting team of evaluators who all work for competing institutions to provide advice that will help strengthen Willamette is a truly remarkable feature of American peer-accreditation and a testament to our shared commitment to our students. We should recognize their generosity, and we will gladly take advantage of their knowledge and external perspective. 

I want to thank all of you who have helped prepare for this visit and who are scheduled to meet with the team members. You can learn more about the visit, the team that has led our efforts, and our accreditation report here. I also commend to you Madelyn Jones's article on accreditation in last week's Collegian.

Non nobis solum,
Dear Bearcats,

I hope you are enjoying the unseasonably bright and brisk weather. Soon enough the rains will come and wash the last of the color out of the trees, but for me, having lived all over the country, autumn in Oregon is hard to beat.

My enjoyment of the season is tempered, though, by thoughts of the many tens of thousands of people in California who have been displaced this week by fire, including the families of many Willamette students. It is, as always, important for us to be aware of the stress many of our friends and colleagues are experiencing. Students who need support are encouraged to contact Student Affairs (UC 3rd floor, 503-370-6447) or to reach out to counseling services at Bishop Wellness Center or the Office of the Chaplains. Employees should take advantage of the Employee Assistance Program as needed.

This is the tenth issue of Words from Waller. I appreciate the feedback I've received from members of the community in the last ten weeks, and also the thoughtful suggestions for future letters.  Keep the ideas coming!

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Halloween.

Go Bearcats!
Dear Bearcats,

Later this week we will welcome the Willamette University Board of Trustees to campus for the first of their three meetings during the academic year. The board is formally responsible for ensuring that Willamette carries out its educational mission, complies with various regulations, and prudently stewards its resources for the benefit of both current and future generations of students. There are currently 34 voting trustees and 30 non-voting life trustees. We have trustees who are alumni from each of our schools, as well as parents and friends of the university. There are also student and faculty representatives from each school who sit with the board and participate in its discussions and meetings. Trustees are volunteers and cover their own costs to attend the meetings on campus each year.

I'll write more later about what the board does and how it works, but today I want to give you a glimpse of the kind of volunteer leaders we have on the board by briefly introducing our three newest board members, who begin their service this week:

First is Lucy Jensen, who is a dual-degree alum who received both a JD and MBA from Willamette in 2013. Lucy fills one of the two Early Career Trustee spots on the board for alumni who are within 15 years of graduation. Lucy works as Legal Counsel for Corporate Governance and Securities at Adobe and has been involved with Willamette as a volunteer for law admissions and the law advisory committee. Her other volunteer work includes working with Habitat for Humanity, the Special Olympics, and pet rescue organizations. Her husband Ben is also a Willamette alumnus and an assistant attorney general for the state of Utah.

Also joining the board is Jeff Chung, from the CLA Class of 1990. Jeff lives in Hawaii, where he is president of Allen Broadcasting Corporation, a major Korean language television company. He has already served Willamette in many ways by hosting our athletes when they travel to Hawaii and hosted admissions events for us there as well. He has served on the board of the state chapter of the Red Cross and the Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation, as well as chair of the board for the Hawaii International Film Festival.

Finally, we welcome the Rev. Patricia Farris, who will fill the board position reserved for a clergy member from the United Methodist Church. Patricia is the board chair for the Claremont School of Theology. Educated at Carleton and Harvard, she has served in a variety of church leadership roles and is now senior minister at First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica. She is also a member of the board of Upward Bound House, the advisory board of the Every Child Foundation, and the advisory council of the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group.

We are grateful these three talented and generous people who embody our motto in their own lives and work and who have all agreed to serve our extraordinary institution and its students as members of the Board of Trustees.

Non nobis solum,
Dear Bearcats,

Many of you likely saw the New York Times article this past weekend about innovation in higher education, which prominently (and very positively) featured Willamette.

The whole special section in the Times was focused on the trendy topic of "disruption" in higher education. It isn't surprising that journalists, who lived through the collapse of local newspapers as their readers and advertisers moved online, are fascinated by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, who predicted in 2011 that as many as half of the nation's colleges and universities could go bankrupt by 2020 or 2025. Suddenly every college that closes its doors provokes stories about a coming systemic collapse, as people forget similar predictions of doom going back to the late nineteenth century. Colleges come and go, as they always have, but Christensen's predictions have not come true.

That doesn't mean Willamette can ignore disruptive forces. For the first time in history, the total number of American high school grads going on to college is falling. After rising through most of the 20th-century, family incomes have stagnated with a smaller and smaller fraction of the population capturing a larger and larger share of the rewards of technology-driven innovation.

As a result, student loan debt is growing fast and institutions like Willamette whose expenses are dominated by financial aid, personnel costs, and facilities maintenance find it very difficult to reduce costs without fundamentally changing the quality of the student experience. Federal investment in Pell grants has not kept up with either need or costs, and states like Oregon have not stepped into the gap. And despite all we know of the strength of liberal education as a foundation for a life of achievement, contribution, and meaning, students are understandably nervous about the future and increasingly choosing programs that directly connect to their post-college plans.

As the Times story illustrates, Willamette is actively responding to these challenges. Our community is and has been working intensely on these various challenges for many years. Collectively, we made the intentional decision to invest in growth strategies, like our new association with Claremont School of Theology, that can improve efficiency and hold down costs for all of our students (in recent years, we have both led our Northwest Five peer group for access and socioeconomic diversity and have had the lowest average tuition increases). With the help of faculty from all schools, we developed and invested in new programs that can help Willamette students connect liberal education with skills demanded in the job market with the business and management minor and the public health and data sciences majors. And we are creating "only at Willamette" programs that integrate undergraduate liberal arts with graduate professional programs. Inspired by the growing interest in our 3-2 BA-MBA and 3-3 BA-JD, each of which can save a student nearly $100k in tuition and opportunity costs, and by the fact that the majority of our students eventually pursue graduate study, we are exploring other ways to substantially bring down the total cost of education.

Last week, our new 3+1 BS-MS in data science was officially accredited by the Northwest Commission: the first program we know of at any comparable institution that allows a student to finish a full bachelor's and master's degree in four years plus one summer internship.

I would have been thrilled if the Times had the space to discuss all of this exciting work, but the story last weekend was a great start. Now we have got to help those east coast readers who are discovering us for the first time learn how to pronounce our name.

It's Willamette, dammit.

Dear Bearcats,

Tomorrow is the 28th annual commemoration of World Mental Health Day. For us at Willamette, it is a day to reflect on the challenges many of us face with dealing with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, and to recognize the importance of the support each of us can give to our friends, students, and coworkers.

The continuing societal stigma around talking about mental and emotional challenges contributes to the loneliness many people feel when it seems everyone else is doing just fine. But in fact, national surveys taken in 2017 showed that 30% of college students have dealt with depression and 35% have some diagnosed mental health concern. The good news is that of students experiencing depression, the treatment rate grew from 42% in 2009 to 53% in 2017, but the bad news is that nearly half are still not finding the help they need.

At Willamette, our goal is to develop a culture amongst our students, staff, and faculty that promotes wellness and resiliency and helps guide members of our community to the support that they need. Bishop Wellness Center Director Don Thomson and his terrific team provide both care and leadership and have worked to lower perceived barriers to getting support, with free counseling services, telephone counseling, and educational programs. Others, including confidential resources like the Office of the Chaplains and the SARAs, can often provide direct help to students in need as well as help in accessing other resources. And I've been impressed over the years by the willingness of other leadership groups to learn how to identify and support students in crisis, from the RAs to ASWU, and from athletics to colloquium group leaders.

As someone who took longer than I should have to discover the value of the university counseling center in my own student days, I want to especially emphasize on World Mental Health Day that nobody on this campus is ever alone. Writer Andrew Solomon noted that the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and I know that the hardest step can be to believe things can get better. But I also know that one of the Willamette community's great strengths is the way we watch out for each other. At Matriculation each year, Chaplain Wood talks about the dual nature of Bearcats - at times fierce and scary, at other times cuddly and kind. This is a good day to remember to be the second type of Bearcat and reach out a hand to someone in need.

Non nobis solum,


Dear Bearcats,

Students often ask me just what a university president does, and I’m sure others (including my daughter) have wondered the same. I usually tell them it is hard to summarize, but that every day is different. A good way to illustrate that is to share highlights of my calendar from last week, to give a sense of what one week in the life of a university president is like.

Monday: First up is a standing meeting with the university’s administrative leadership team from academic and student affairs, human resources, finance, communications, and advancement. These meetings are important to ensure we are communicating and coordinating with one another to keep things running smoothly. As I usually do on Mondays, I had lunch at Goudy with faculty members from all schools. The afternoon included meetings with Dan Valles (our chief financial officer), Carol Long (our provost and chief academic officer), and ASWU president Amarit Ubhi ‘20. At the end of the day, VP of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Jade Aguilar and I served cake to students celebrating September birthdays.

Tuesday: In the morning, I spoke to university staff at two separate meetings about institutional planning and vision, then headed to the airport to catch a flight to Claremont, CA for meetings with Claremont School of Theology (CST) President Jeffrey Kuan and friends of CST whose support has been critical for their move from Southern California to Salem.

Wednesday: I flew back to Portland to meet with an alumnus and donor about data science and other initiatives, and then met with Board of Trustees chair Lynne Saxton ‘76 and vice-chair Kevin Smith ‘79 in Vancouver, Wash., to plan for the fall board meeting and to discuss the annual work of the board’s committees.

Thursday/Friday: Lynne, Kevin, and I were joined in Vancouver by Dan Valles, Jade Aguilar, and CLA faculty president Nathan Sivers-Boyce at a workshop and conference hosted by the Murdock Trust. Together with similar teams from nine other universities in the northwest, we pored over extensive data sets collected by Murdock, challenging each other (within and across institutional teams) to better understand strategies in areas like constraining college costs, expanding access, and developing more flexible curricular pathways. It was exhausting (I didn’t leave the building for 40 straight hours), but exciting and invigorating in the ways it pushed our academic, administrative, financial, and board leaders to work together towards data-informed planning.

Friday p.m.: I got back to campus just in time to offer a champagne toast at the Oregon Symphony’s season opener. Willamette is fortunate to be the only university in the country with a major orchestra in residence, and students who took advantage of free tickets to Friday’s concert heard a world premiere of a newly-commissioned piece, as well as a spectacular Mozart piano concerto performed by the only American ever to win a gold medal at the International Chopin Competition.

Saturday: I started the day showing off the campus to a New York Times photographer, who is collecting visuals for a future story on innovation in higher education. Then, it was back to the airport to fly to the Bay Area for dinner with a few of our trustees.

Sunday: I spent the day hopscotching around the Bay Area visiting alumni of all eras, including some of our most generous contributors to need-based scholarships and one of our most faithful supporters of arts education at Willamette. It is one of the aspects of the job that I enjoy the most: hearing what Willamette means to our alumni, the impact their time here had on them, and why they feel compelled to pay that forward for future generations.

And, a few minutes before midnight on Sunday I was back at PDX ready to start it all again with the administrative leadership team meeting on Monday morning.
No two weeks are alike in the life of a university president, but the work—whether it’s providing leadership, doing strategic planning, engaging with students, faculty, staff, or alumni, or fundraising—is focused on supporting and advancing the university’s mission and vision. The one constant: my gratitude for the opportunity to do this work in the service of a great and important institution.

Until next week (and after I take a quick nap)...

Go Bearcats!

Dear Bearcats,

We are now a month into the academic year so I thought I'd use this week’s Words from Waller to do a shout-out to a few members of our Willamette community who have made outstanding contributions of which we should all be proud.

Bethany Abbate '22, who worked as a strategic communications intern this summer in the Oregon State Treasurer's Office, was a key contributor to our exciting announcement with Treasurer Tobias Read '97 of a new partnership between Willamette and the Oregon College Savings Plan.

The importance of scholarship support from alumni and other donors and the access it makes possible was illustrated beautifully in the inspiring story about first-year student Erika Figueroa '23 and her path to Willamette

Another first-year student from Salem, Kyla Gordon '23, earned notice from soccer star Carli Lloyd when Kyla became the third woman to play (and score) in a Bearcat football game. The team was in Southern California for their home opener against the University of La Verne which was also the first outing for our head football coach Isaac Parker '02 MAT ‘05.

I enjoyed seeing photos of the football team's visit to the Getty Museum, hosted by J. Paul Getty Trust President and CEO Jim Cuno '73. A few days later, the New York Times published a story about how Jim and the Getty Trust are working to help save ancient artifacts around the world from the threats of sectarian violence and climate change.

Also in the news frequently this month (and all summer) was Professor of Law Warren Binford, who has emerged as a leading national voice speaking for the improvement of conditions for children and families held at the detention facilities along the southern US border

Finally, ASWU President Amarit Ubhi was one of the organizers of the Student Government Association / Program Board conference whose keynote speaker was Eric Friedenwald Fishman ‘88

I could go on, but I will highlight more of the successes of the members of our Bearcat community next month. In the meantime...

Go Bearcats!

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!

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