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 Willamette Community,

This has been one of the saddest and hardest weeks I can remember. In the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately harming and killing the poor, the old, and people of color, thereby reminding us of the structural inequality and racism built deeply into our society, comes the murder of a black man, George Floyd, in Minnesota by police, yet another in a terrible, unforgivable sequence of such killings.
A nation in crisis doesn’t need more words from white men like me. It doesn’t need white men to make it all about ourselves. It doesn’t need old white men with their guns and militia fantasies on the streets of Salem defending beauty salons. It doesn’t need young white men with their bricks and their anti-capitalist slogans smashing windows in the streets of Portland. It doesn’t need the white leader of the free world tweeting provocations about shooting looters and siccing vicious dogs on protesters.
What the nation needs is to listen to what black people, and Latinos, and Native Americans, and other oppressed and marginalized groups have been saying for years, and really since before this country was founded. We need to listen to what Floyd said with his dying words, “I can’t breathe,” a tragic statement for one man and terrible reality for millions more. We must lift up the memories of Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin, as well, and far too many others. We must listen, we must remember, and most of all we must act, to denounce the ugly remnants of overt bigotry and to dismantle the even more insidious structures of institutionalized racism.
Willamette's VP for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Jade Aguilar, has been working to reorganize the committees that bring together students, staff, and faculty from across campus to support the university community and to develop a strong antiracism agenda. You will hear more from her soon. Please reach out directly to her if you want to help. 
This week, the focus should be on those most in fear and pain, and I ask you all to be there for each other as we all work through strong emotions and difficult conversations. And then, in the year ahead, let us redouble our commitment to the values expressed in our motto.

Non nobis solum,
Steve

Dear Willamette Community,

Now that the class of 2020 has been successfully launched, our full attention turns to planning for fall and the preparations needed for the return of students and employees to campus. 

As I noted in an earlier Words from Waller, the recent improvements in the public health situation in our region, along with draft guidance from the state and information from local health providers, have given us confidence that we will be able to return to in-person instruction in August safely. Today I want to share more details about the work being done to ensure that plans and protocols are in place, and that all members of the community understand their roles in protecting the health of themselves and others.

Our work is led by the same task force that developed our initial response to the crisis, now shifting its focus to planning for the resumption of our operations, as well as for various possible scenarios if the pandemic re-emerges into active growth in the fall or winter. 

The Reopening Operations Committee (ROC) has segmented its work, led by four members of the university’s leadership team:

  • Academics (led by Provost Carol Long): instruction, technology infrastructure and academic services
  • Student Services (led by Don Thomson, Bishop Wellness Center Director in June and then Lisa Landreman, incoming VP for Student Affairs in July): housing, dining, and campus life
  • Human Resources (led by Shana Sechrist, VP for Human Resources and Risk Management): return to work plans for faculty and staff
  • Facilities and Physical Spaces (led by Dan Valles, VP for Finance): operations, capacity adjustments, protective equipment, cleaning

Within the ROC are workgroups formulating operational plans about public health protocols and education, research protocols, classroom structure and preparedness, housing protocols, dining protocols, and athletics.

All work is referenced back to county, regional, state, and federal public guidance, with allowance for the evolution of that guidance as more is learned about the epidemiology of the virus and testing and treatment protocols improve. It will be essential in the year ahead that Willamette University remains prepared to adapt nimbly, just as we successfully did in March with our shift to distance education.

If reliance on the guidance of the public health experts at the Oregon Health Authority and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which is aimed at protecting the health and safety of our community members is our first principle for fall planning, our second is to focus on our core educational mission. It is the value of what we do in our classrooms and labs, our studios, and performance spaces that makes it so essential that we get back to that work as soon as possible this fall.

The ROC will send regular updates this summer as decisions are finalized about any necessary adjustments to our normal operations. Information will also be shared on our website. 

One of the first important changes we are making is to our academic calendar to limit the number of times students must travel long distances to and from campus while maintaining the normal semester length.

In-person instruction in the undergraduate college will begin about a week earlier than previously planned, on Monday, August 24. Labor Day and the previously-scheduled mid-semester break day will be used as instructional days, and fall semester classes will end on Wednesday, November 25, after which students will return home until the start of the spring semester in January. Final exams will be administered online beginning Monday, November 30. (Students without home internet access may request an exception to be allowed to remain on campus for final exams.)

Detailed scheduling information for orientation, move-in and opening days will be shared directly with students next week.

As you know, for now, Willamette continues to operate under the Governor’s Executive Order limiting in-person activity on university campuses through June 13. Despite the anticipated expiration of that order, the Willamette campus will remain closed to the public through July, and those employees who can work at home will continue to be required to do so until August 1. Any requests for expanded use of campus spaces in June or July must be approved in advance by a dean or vice president, to ensure they are properly aligned with our health and safety guidelines.

I appreciate that there are many questions about everything from dining services to athletics to requirements for the use of personal protective equipment. Our immediate priorities include addressing long lead-time facility needs, finalizing course capacity decisions that might require adjustments of teaching schedules, and preparing residence hall plans, but be assured that the ROC is carefully tracking concerns raised by students, staff, and faculty, and will respond to them in the weeks ahead. 

Sincerely,

Steve

Dear Bearcats,

I want to offer heartfelt congratulations to the entire Willamette community as we bring the 2019-20 academic year to a close this week. Finals are finished. Faculty are working hard to read papers and grade final exams. Ordinarily, we would be in those magic end-of-the-school-year days together, before we all disperse for the summer and, in the case of graduating students, head off towards what comes next.

It is sad that we cannot gather this weekend on the Quad to celebrate commencement. If it helps at all, know that we will be missing a very wet and soggy Oregon spring day. But even if the ceremonies are virtual, it will still be a momentous day for the Class of 2020.

I will be with you by video on Sunday and will save most of my comments about our new graduates until then. Today, I want to recognize Willamette’s faculty. I often claim, with considerable evidence, that Willamette’s faculty are the best in the Northwest at the kind of traditional, rigorous, personalized teaching and learning that is at the core of our university’s mission. This year, they proved that they could work what was almost a miracle: translating the core of what they do so well in person into new online and distance-mediated formats with only a few days’ notice. I am proud and grateful.

There are four faculty for whom this commencement weekend also marks a graduation of sorts, becoming Professor Emeritus. David S. Clark and Vincent Chiappetta retire from the College of Law with 18 and 22 years of service, respectively. In the College of Arts and Sciences, Robert Trapp retires from the Department of Civic Communication and Media after 29 years of service, and from the Department of Music, Wallace Long retires after a remarkable 36 years as director of choral activities. I had been looking forward to recognizing our retiring faculty and seeing Prof. Long leading his final choral performance at commencement this year. Instead, I hope that the students and colleagues of these four dedicated faculty are able to celebrate with them at reunions next year.

Until Sunday,
Steve
Dear Bearcats,

Even in a disrupted year, the academic calendar rolls inexorably onward. At Willamette, final exams are finished, underway, or about to start for students in Law, AGSM, and the College of Arts and Sciences, respectively. In the weeks ahead, we will celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2020, even if we can’t be all crowded together in the big tent on the Quad (or even tuned into a Zoom meeting with thousands of friends and family). Stay tuned—faculty and staff are working hard behind the scenes to help make things feel festive on the big day, but I've promised not to share all their secrets.

I also want to acknowledge another very important transition this month, as Claremont School of Theology prepares for its move to Salem. For CST, this month’s commencement ceremony was to be the last on the campus they have called home since 1957, and we grieve with them the lost opportunity to mark a historic transition. But, I am glad to say that preparations to warmly welcome the school to Salem and Willamette have continued. 

As I write, work is underway to prepare Shepard House to serve as the main home for CST’s faculty and staff, and to secure a lease of space in the MICAH Building of the First UMC near Hallie Ford Museum for additional CST programs.

We have also gotten ready for the move of CST’s core library into our Hatfield Library, where their resources will be available to the entire Willamette community starting in the fall. Many of our lesser-used bound periodicals have been shifted to nearby storage where they will still be available for access with a short delay.

It has been exciting in the last year to see collaborations grow between the faculties of the two institutions. We must remain legally and financially independent until CST can complete the sale of their current property and we receive necessary approvals of the various regulatory and accrediting bodies that would allow us to embed CST as a graduate school within Willamette. But our co-location next fall will allow a richer, deeper set of connections among our faculty, staff, and student populations.
At a challenging time for both Willamette and CST, and indeed for higher education around the world, the fact that our faculty, administrators, and governing boards have been able to keep moving this project along is a good reminder that we will get past this pandemic, and when we do, it will be with a stronger, larger university that better serves our students, our region, and our world.

Steve
Dear Bearcats,

Last week, I shared with you that I was optimistic that we would be able to re-open our campus by Fall 2020. 

Willamette faculty and staff have been working hard to ensure that plans are in place to return to on-campus life and classes as quickly and safely as possible. As we think about the process of returning to in-person instruction, we must think first, of course, of the health and safety of those who are part of the Willamette community. The same task force that guided our move to distance education this spring and that developed the protocols that have allowed us to continue to house and feed our remaining resident student population is now turning its attention to questions of how to reopen Willamette safely. As testing becomes easier and more available, we are now talking about how we work with our local health department to develop testing and tracing protocols for our campus and how to manage class sizes and room assignments to enhance social distancing. We are also thinking about ways to modify schedules to reduce crowding in the dining halls and talk about where enhanced cleaning efforts be focused.

We are not alone in this work. In addition to advice from local and state public health departments, Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission has convened groups of university leaders, including me, to develop recommendations for a common approach to some of these questions. Barring any surprises, it seems very likely that Oregon's ban on in-person instruction will be lifted by mid-summer, and that all or most Willamette classes will be easily within the guidelines for maximum group size.

This pandemic will be with us in some form at least until an effective vaccine can be developed, but we need not be stuck in this limbo of total social isolation until then if we combine testing with thoughtful public health measures. As an example of what is possible, here in Oregon, medical facilities will soon reopen: my orthopedist brother will begin performing elective joint replacement surgeries again next week. It will be critical to a generation of students at both the K-12 and university levels that the reopening of schools and colleges is not far behind.

I don't know about you, Bearcats, but I can't wait to be on campus and see everyone again this fall. Everything may not be back to normal. I suspect at least some travel and study abroad programs will still be restricted and the NCAA has not yet decided on possible alterations to sports schedules or competitions. I also doubt that I will shake hands with the incoming Class of 2024 at Matriculation this year as I normally do—it's going to be fist or elbow bumps for the foreseeable future. But it will feel good to return to doing what we do best, together.

There are no certainties in life. On the off chance that the state tells us that we have to start in-person instruction in September instead of August, or if we have to otherwise change our approach, then we will, of course, let you know of any modified plans. But however well our community responded to the mid-semester changes this spring, all of us—students, staff, and faculty—are at Willamette because we believe in the power of academic community and personal engagement. And every one of us will be working in the months ahead to restore those traditional Willamette attributes as quickly and safely as we can.

This Friday, it will have been exactly four months since the first reports were received by the World Health Organization of a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. In that time, the world has utterly changed, in ways that have felt out of control. On Friday, it will also be exactly four months until the scheduled first day of classes in Willamette's 2020-21 academic year. It is on all of us to use these months well so Willamette is ready to do what it has always done best: prepare students for achievement and service to a world that needs us now more than ever.

Non nobis solum, 
Steve
Dear Bearcats,
When the stakes are small, most of us enjoy a little uncertainty. What fun would attending a ball game be if you knew the final score in advance? But as the stakes get higher, humans are wired for anxiety. A study done at University College London a few years ago showed that lab volunteers who know that a painful shock is coming suffer from significantly less anticipatory stress than those who know they have only a fifty-fifty chance of being shocked. "Get the bad news over with!" we say, anticipating a worst-case scenario that may never come to pass.

This afternoon, in a wonderful virtual meeting that replaced our usual in-person Student Scholarship Recognition Day luncheon thanking many of our most generous scholarship donors, I was not surprised that many of the questions I was asked were about what comes next for Willamette. These questions are ones I hear from prospective student families, current students, and faculty and staff as well. When will we return to normal? What will the fall semester look like? Will football practice start on time in August?

It is a very uncomfortable truth that much still remains uncertain. As Dr. Anthony Fauci has stressed, "You don't make the timetable; the virus makes the timetable." It is likely that this novel coronavirus, and the threat of the COVID-19 disease, will be with us for quite a while.

We do need to recognize, though, that we are not without agency. We may not control the virus, but we are responsible for how we prepare and respond. I have said before that I am thankful for the worthy work we have, sustaining Willamette's vital educational mission in a world turned upside down. 

Two months into this public health crisis in this country, there are promising signs that the public health interventions we have taken are being successful, and that in the hardest-hit areas new infections are falling. It will take weeksmaybe many weeksto gain full control, but getting past the bottlenecks in the production of protective gear and testing capacity makes management of the disease seem likely, albeit with some level of continued distancing, tracking, and sporadic isolation needed until a vaccine can be developed.

I am optimistic, then, that Willamette will be able to start the Fall 2020 semester in a form that looks much more like normal than the current semester. Yesterday, I participated in meetings of Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission and of our NCAA conference's President's Council, discussing in both venues what will be involved in "reopening" to more normal activities. We have many things to consider, such as whether to limit class sizes, modify residence hall use, and continue to limit travel. We don't know yet when athletic practices, in-conference competitions, and team travel will be restarted. It is possible that we may still tinker a bit with the academic calendar as the realities of the virus dictate, but I am grateful for the relative nimbleness that a human-scale university like Willamette has compared to large universities where "return to normal operations" means packing hundreds of students into a single classroom.

After a challenging spring, it will be important to understand that the year ahead will be a difficult one, for the institution and for the faculty, staff, and students who form our vibrant academic community. There are few certainties to cling to right now, and we need to acknowledge and manage the considerable stress that brings. But, I am comforted knowing that every day there are great people at Willamette working to map out the various possible paths and to develop plans to meet whichever challenges develop.

This is why, in the face of so much uncertainty, there is one thing I know for sure: Willamette University will continue to do the thing it has always done best, prepare its graduates for lives of achievement, contribution, and meaning. We are a strong institution with healthy financial reserves, but more importantly, great reserves of human talent and community commitment. Willamette's steadfastness of mission and our courage to invest even when times are tough has served us well at other moments of national challenge, including the depression years, World War II, and the great recession of 2009. I am confident the same will be true in the year ahead.

Go Bearcats!
Steve
Dear Bearcats,
Here on the west coast, we have now been living for a month under government-issued stay-at-home orders, and even the most optimistic projections suggest we are at least another month away from any significant return to more normal activities. I have noted in previous messages how fortunate I feel for the worthy work that most of us still have, as Willamette's teaching and learning mission continues to be fulfilled in unprecedented ways. But the tension is always there, between the desire for structure and purpose and normalcy and the sense that the larger world is trapped in an absurdist juxtaposition of timelessness and inertia together with chaos and uncertainty. How can we focus on a problem set when friends and family are losing jobs and fighting infection? How can we teach from a makeshift home office when the kids are home from school and in need of attention? How do we plan for the future when the present seems never-ending?

For me, an important source of solace has been some of the remarkably creative art, both high and low, that has found audiences in new ways on the internet. By now, most of you have seen the joyous Zoom reunion of the original Hamilton cast, but have you caught Willamette alumni supergroup In The Pocket's quarantine version of The Longest Time? Last weekend, many of us enjoyed local favorite True North's Facebook live concert that raised more than $3,000 for CASA of Marion County. And as an Episcopalian, my own Easter celebrations were definitely made more beautiful by this 600-person virtual choir and orchestra performing The Strife is O'er.

Next Wednesday, April 22 is Willamette's annual Student Scholarship Recognition Day, a time when we take a day away from normally-scheduled classes to celebrate the scholarly, research, and artistic accomplishments of our students. It is always awe-inspiring when we all get a chance to learn about the remarkable work that our student colleagues have been quietly doing in labs, practice rooms, studios, and the library for months or even years, and the interactivity as students explain and defend their work in front of their peers is a key part of the event. In the spirit of making lemonade from the lemons we have been handed, I am happy to say that this 20th incarnation of SSRD will have a broader reach than ever before as the whole event moves onto Zoom where families and alumni can join in as well. In recent years, we have had the pleasure of welcoming many scholarship donors back to campus for SSRD, so they can meet the students that their scholarships support. This year I hope that a much larger share of the Willamette alumni community will be able to take part to be reminded, in this challenging time, how the spirit of Willamette and the promise of its students endures.

Non nobis solum,
Steve

Sunset this evening marks the beginning of Passover, the annual Jewish commemoration of God’s protection of the Israelites and their flight from bondage in Egypt. I am not Jewish, but I have been privileged to join celebrations of the first night Seder, which for most families is a cherished opportunity to gather family and friends for a traditional meal and rituals involving storytelling and song, lots of wine, and lively conversation often around topics of freedom and justice. Whatever our faith backgrounds, there are universal resonances in both the form and message of the Seder celebrations, which end each year with the traditional words of blessing and hope, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem is, of course, an actual place, drawing its name from the same root as the Hebrew “shalom” and the Arabic “salaam”—the City of Peace.  The vision and metaphor of peace that this name evokes for many traditions were on the mind of the group of 19th century Methodists whose newly platted lands on the banks of the Willamette River were given a name derived from Jerusalem:  Salem - the City of Peace.

For all of us, regardless of religious faith, there is a special resonance this year in the story of Passover, and the hope both for an escape from this time of trial and the promise of a future together. In this strange spring of “social distancing,” with our Willamette community spread to the four winds, this is a good moment to remember the things that bind us: rituals, story, and song, the Bon Appetit food and (if age appropriate) the Willamette Valley wines, the belief in service and in the possibility of building a more just world. Whether we consider the City of Peace as a metaphor or a physical, earthly place, have faith that we will meet again, next year in Salem.

Non nobis solum,

Steve

Dear Bearcats,

The international health crisis continues to disrupt our lives and the basic functioning of our campus, communities, and world. Without naturally-developed immunity, humanity faces a novel coronavirus that causes a disease for which we have no vaccine and only palliative treatments, leaving “social distancing” as the sole effective tool to fight its spread. But what a blunt tool it is, to shut down human face-to-face interaction for weeks or months, and what a cost, to sacrifice our plans and long-held dreams as the only way to safeguard the health of those we love. 

I am sad to share that our American Studies Program students will be going home to Japan, on flights leaving today and tomorrow. Our hearts have been with these 90 students, who had long-prepared for a year of study and travel in the United States, only to have the pandemic scuttle their plans before they even had a chance to settle in. It is hard to say goodbye to these new friends so soon, but it is comforting to know they will soon be home with their families. I hope that many will one day be able to return to Willamette.

I am also very sorry to report that we have made the heart-wrenching decision to cancel commencement ceremonies this spring. Commencement is an important ritual for the entire Willamette community, but this decision is, of course, especially painful for our soon-to-be graduates who have worked so hard, and for their proud families who have provided valuable support. And it is not just the ceremony itself that is lost, but the celebratory final weeks with friends, faculty and staff mentors, and the joy of participating in all the trappings and traditions of graduation. 

My promise to all graduating students is that this will not define your Willamette experience nor will this be how your Willamette story will end. On Commencement Sunday, May 17, you will be formally recognized as a Willamette University graduate and become a Willamette alumnus, even though we have to mark that transition from afar. And then, when it is safe and feasible to gather as many of you as possible back on the Willamette campus, we will properly and fully celebrate you as a graduating class. We are still ironing out the timing and specifics of an alternate event, including whether it should be held this fall or next spring, but we will let you know as soon as a decision is made.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that COVID-19 has now touched the Willamette community directly. Over the weekend, I received the news of the COVID-related death of one of our oldest alumni, who just a week or two ago spoke to a staff member with pride about the students whose scholarships she had been supporting this spring. We also learned of a Willamette student participating in an off-campus program who has tested positive for COVID-19.  

Unfortunately, in the coming days and weeks, more of our friends and family will develop COVID-19 or be exposed to the disease. The coronavirus is widespread in the U.S. and testing remains limited, so it is safest to behave as if it is already pervasive: stay home when you can, maintain physical distance from others, wash your hands regularly, and call your provider if you develop symptoms. Faculty or staff who become ill should notify their dean, supervisor, or HR (dkchapin@willamette.edu). Students should contact Vice President Ed Whipple (egwhipple@willamette.edu), who can help coordinate needed support with the academic deans and others.

I have said it before, but I want to encourage you again to also give yourself permission to grieve what is being lost in this difficult season. There is evidence—at least on the west coast—that social distancing really is flattening the curve. Some models suggest that as many as a million or more lives in the United States will likely be saved through the sacrifices we are making. But it is still OK to recognize that those sacrifices are real, that our sadness over the separation from friends is natural, that the loss of commencement is hard.
Remember, too, the things that remain, including our supportive and caring community - a community I am proud to stand with. I hope that the return this week to the routine of classes is a chance to reconnect with each other and with the worthy work of teaching and learning. Look after each other, Bearcats. 

Non nobis solum,
Steve
Dear Bearcats,

I know this is not the spring break any of us imagined even a month ago. Most of us are now subject to “stay at home” orders at a time of the year when we are primed to travel and ready to enjoy the early signs of spring. I hope all of you are staying safe and well, and finding ways to connect with your families, each other, and the broader world. The invisibility of the virus and the delay of symptoms can make it seem in the moment that the sacrifices of “social distancing” are pointless, as both high-profile cases and grim statistics continue to pile up. Keep faith in the value of our collective commitment to these measures. We will never know which lives were saved or which suffering was avoided, but we will break the spread of this pandemic.

As of yesterday, our on-campus student population numbers only about a third of what it was two weeks ago. Among those still here are many international students as well as other students without good alternative options so I am glad we made the decision to keep the residence halls open despite the challenges and expenses involved. I want to extend my deepest gratitude to the many essential staff who continue to come to work, managing their own family and personal concerns, to care for our students: our facilities, grounds and housekeeping teams who look after our campus; the Bon Appetit employees who keep everyone fed; the student affairs staff who attend to their health and well-being; the campus safety staff who watch out for their safety; and the many others who continue to keep the WIFI alive, the mail delivered, and the rest of Willamette’s infrastructure running. The “old historic temple” may appear quiet and nearly empty, but its heart is beating strongly.

For now, the Willamette community is spread to the four winds. Next week, classes will resume in their unfamiliar distance-mediated formats, thanks to the quick work of faculty who are working hard to maintain the best aspects of our intense, personalized academic programs in this temporarily disrupted world. In each of our schools, admissions staff continue to find creative ways to connect future students to a university they cannot visit, and each day we hear the excitement from students joining the class of 2024.

That, more than anything, is the best reminder that this dark season, the hardest spring Willamette has ever faced, will end. Our classrooms will once again be filled, along with our playing fields and art studios and labs and concert halls.

Until then, Bearcats, know that it is OK to grieve what has been lost and to miss distant friends. Stay in (virtual) community and take care of yourselves and especially of each other. Our motto can now, as always, be your guide:

Non nobis solum nati sumus,
Steve
Dear Bearcats,
Looking around our suddenly quiet campus, or talking to your professors and classmates through tiny Zoom windows instead of across a seminar table, or, if you're in the Bay Area, suddenly ordered to stay in your home for weeks on end, I suspect you are asking the same question I am: "What is happening??" Ten days ago, COVID-19 was a worry, a concern, maybe a threat to be understood and managed. Today, it has upended every aspect of global society.

And yet, most of us don't yet know anyone who has the virus, much less anyone who has become gravely ill. As I write this, over a hundred Americans have died from COVID-19. By comparison, thousands of people in this country die weekly of the flu in a typical winter season, and yet the flu does not lead to restaurants and schools being closed, professional and college sports seasons being canceled, and panic buying of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It is natural to ask, are we all overreacting?

And maybe we are, at least when it comes to toilet paper. But what we know from watching China and Korea and Italy and Iran is that this new coronavirus is a public health threat capable of causing death and misery at a level matched in the last century only by HIV/AIDS, but far faster-moving. With no vaccine and limited treatment options, left unchecked, COVID-19 spreads through a population with a doubling time of about four days, which means 100 deaths can become 20,000 deaths in a month if action isn't taken to slow the spread.

In public health, it has become common to talk about the Preparation Paradox, which says that everything you have to do to stop an exponentially growing epidemic will seem like a gross overreaction. Ironically, if your efforts are successful, then even retrospectively it will seem to most people that the actions had been unnecessarily heavy-handed. But if you fail, even the most painful and intrusive disruptions of daily life will have been woefully inadequate.

The good news about COVID-19 is that it can be slowed, as has been done in China, Korea, and, at long last, Italy. It is likely that the actions taken by America's governors, school leaders, and institutions like Willamette will do the same in this country, though the delay between exposure and symptoms means that the number of cases will continue to rise quickly over the next few weeks. And slowing the spread of the disease will save thousands of lives by "flattening the curve" and reducing the intensity of demand on our limited hospital facilities. It will also give time for the development of better tests and treatments and, one hopes, an effective vaccine.

Today, I have a challenge for all of you: learn more about the new coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease and about the importance of social distancing. There is lots of good information online, especially at authoritative sources like the CDC. There is also a lot of really bad information. One site that I personally think sets a good balance between readability, accuracy, and comprehensiveness, and which is regularly updated, is the Ars Technica guide to coronavirus.

Then, Bearcats, I want you to do one more thing: share your new knowledge with friends and family. As with other large challenges like climate change, it will take collective effort to flatten the curve and beat COVID-19. Pictures of crowded spring break beaches and St. Patrick's Day bars suggest that the message isn't being heard, and there is some evidence that older Americans, the ones who are most at-risk, are among those with the least exposure to accurate information.

The choices we are being asked to make are painful ones, and because of the Preparation Paradox, we are sometimes trying to share the importance of those choices with people who are not yet ready to hear the message. So, I am going to leave you with a Twitter thread that a friend shared with me, hash-tagged #LoveInTheTimeOfCoronavirus, that shares one woman's communication strategy with her aging parents: https://twitter.com/EricaHauver/status/1238959119165534208.

Bearcats, although we may be physically far apart this spring, together we will get through this.

Steve

Dear Bearcats,

 

There is a lot going on, both on campus and in the world. I am deferring my usual Words from Waller until later this week. Instead, Willamette's COVID-19 response team will be communicating soon with an update on the campus response to the coronavirus. I urge you to check your emails so you are aware of the latest information, which is ever-evolving. 

Steve


March 11, 2020 Message from the Willamette University COVID-19 Response Team:

Dear Willamette Community,

Willamette University continues to closely monitor COVID-19 and is in regular communication with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), to ensure we are taking all necessary precautions for our students, faculty, and staff.

OHA continues to advise universities against preventative closures and Willamette has been acting on this guidance. At the same time, faculty have already been asked to deliver course content remotely to support those students who are unable to attend classes in-person due to health concerns and to be prepared in case the university moves to online instruction for any period of time.

In addition to the planned remarks by the president this evening, we also understand that the governor and state health leaders are meeting to discuss additional guidance that may change our decisions on campus operations. As such, we will be providing a more comprehensive update tomorrow.

As a reminder, the latest information about Willamette’s COVID-19 response may be found on our website here.

Dear Bearcats,

The interconnectedness of the modern world has been made manifest in recent weeks by the emergence and rapid spread of COVID-19, caused by a new-to-humans coronavirus that first appeared in the Wuhan region of China in December and now has reached countries in every part of the world. Here in the United States, over a hundred cases have been identified, and ten people in Washington State have died, most associated with a nursing home in Kirkland.

Here at Willamette we have been tracking and preparing for the possible arrival of COVID-19 since January. Bishop Wellness Center Director Don Thomson has convened a working group that includes representatives of all major units and schools, and we are collaborating with partners such as Marion County Health and the State of Oregon to ensure that we are taking the right precautions to prioritize health and safety not just for those on campus but for our students studying around the world. Don will continue to keep all of us informed of any new developments and updates will be posted on Willamette's coronavirus web page.

For most young, healthy people it appears that the new virus causes only relatively mild symptoms, and sometimes none at all—and of course we are very fortunate to have terrific staff like those of Bishop Wellness, not to mention Salem Health across the street. But nearly every one of us has elderly or immunocompromised relatives or friends and many of us are far from home, worried about family members. I urge you to give special thought to our international students, including those from Tokyo International University of America. History shows the appalling results of mixing ignorance, fear, and disease. Please report any incidents of xenophobia or racism you encounter, on-campus or off, and keep in mind in your daily interactions that your colleagues, friends, teachers, students, and staff members may be dealing with new kinds of stress or distraction as we all live through a period of disruption and uncertainty.

It is easy, reading the news, to feel empathy for those in China, Korea, Italy, Iran, and Kirkland, WA whose lives have been deeply affected by COVID-19. The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others still hope to slow or even halt its further spread, but it seems inevitable that the disease will cause broader disruption in Oregon, the US, and around the world in the weeks and months ahead.

As Bearcats, we are many things: challenging, idealistic, passionate. But each year at Matriculation, when Chaplain Karen Wood teaches us the motto in Latin, she also celebrates one enduring, and defining, Bearcat characteristic: kindness. Time and again, Willamette has proven itself a caring and compassionate community. Let us fully express that quality now and into the spring and beyond.

So, wash your hands, sneeze into a tissue, replace handshakes with fist bumps, but most importantly, be there for each other in the weeks and months ahead. Interconnectedness may be a challenge for public health officials, but it is also the most powerful tool we have to fight against any threat, including COVID-19.

Non nobis solum,
Steve

Dear Bearcats,

Last week, the Board of Trustees met on campus for the second of their three annual meetings. A highlight for them is meeting and talking with our faculty and students. During the meeting, trustees heard from four faculty talking about the intentional ways that their departments (in this case CCM, Physics, Psychology, and Theater) increasingly connect the work students do in their majors to post-Willamette employment options and opportunities. They also heard from faculty and students about their enthusiasm for Willamette's new Public Health major.

One of the important things that the Board does each February is review recommendations to award tenure to faculty. Faculty who are up for tenure have typically been at Willamette for six years and have established an exemplary record of teaching, scholarship, and service to the institution and to their disciplines. Faculty committees, the deans, and I evaluate tenure files, collecting extensive information from students, colleagues, and outside experts to make recommendations to the Board. At Willamette, only the Board of Trustees has the authority to move a faculty member from probationary to long-term status, with a promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor with tenure.

This year, the Board promoted eight faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences - the largest group of tenure candidates in recent memory - to Associate Professor. Please join me in congratulating our newly-tenured colleagues: Héctor Agüero (Music), Luke Ettinger (Exercise and Health Sciences), David Griffith (Chemistry), Tabitha Knight (Economics), Janet Lorenzen (Sociology), Katja Meyer (Environmental Science), Maegan Parker Brooks (Civic Communications and Media), and Kyle Stephenson (Psychology).

Each year, the Board's decision to grant tenure demonstrates their confidence in the quality of our faculty and in the strength of our institution. It also shows their long-term commitment to our Arts and Sciences core, even as we continue to broaden and grow new cross-cutting and graduate programs in the professions. I am confident that these eight faculty, all rising academic leaders, will serve Willamette and its students well in the years and decades ahead. Let us all celebrate this important milestone with them.

Go Bearcats!
Steve

Dear Bearcats,

We live in a disorienting time with partisan politics and angry debate about almost everything taking over our newsfeeds. People are frustrated by the divisiveness and polarization and see it spilling over into their daily lives, even on our own campus, as we saw from some of the results of our recent campus climate survey.

Next week, our spring Atkinson Lecture speaker, Eboo Patel, will help us see that our differences are a bridge and not a barrier to understanding one another. Patel is a diversity activist and the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that advocates for interfaith cooperation in America. He served on President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships and is the author of four books. He spends most of his time traveling the country meeting students, educators, and community leaders to talk about the complex landscape of religious diversity and the power of interfaith cooperation in the 21st century.

Patel has been involved with efforts to build bridges between diverse communities for almost 20 years and describes the current political landscape as "a molten era, a time of both danger and possibility."  But, while differences and disagreements are an inevitable part of participating in a diverse democracy, they shouldn’t keep us from working together for the common good. Patel hopes to inspire us, especially our students who are our hope for the future, to be the kind of leaders who can build something better in the world. Building something better, Patel writes, is always harder than burning something down, and doing diversity work is not just about engaging the differences you like.

The Atkinson Lecture featuring Eboo Patel takes place next Wednesday, February 26, at 7 p.m. in Hudson Hall. Willamette students, faculty, and staff can reserve tickets online here. Following the lecture, Patel will take questions from the audience and conclude with a book signing.

Non nobis solum,
Steve

Dear Bearcats,

In the day since the surprising announcement that Concordia University in Portland will close at the end of their academic year, I have been asked two questions repeatedly. First, is there anything Willamette can do to help the 5,000 displaced students finish their degrees? And second, is there any chance something like that could happen to Willamette??  My answers to those questions, in order, are, "Absolutely!" and "Absolutely not!"

The closure of Oregon's largest private university is a shock and a disruption for thousands of students. Nearly every university in the state, including Willamette, is working to help find transfer pathways that will minimize the difficulty and cost for those students to complete their degrees. A majority of Concordia's students are pursuing studies in areas Willamette does not provide, such as elementary education, social work, and homeland security, but for undergraduate students in subjects like biology or psychology, or for graduate students in management or law, Willamette might be a great option.

The closure comes amid intense media scrutiny on higher education, especially after the closure last year of Marylhurst University and the Oregon College of Arts and Craft. Even large public university systems, like the one in Alaska, have been discussing potential consolidations or campus closures. It is natural to worry about what demographic and economic "disruption" might mean for other colleges and universities, including Willamette. 

But I want there to be no confusion: Willamette is on solid financial footing.

Willamette and Concordia are very different institutions. Concordia never developed a significant endowment, while Willamette's $270M endowment - the product of generations of generous gifts from alumni and others - makes us one of the wealthiest universities in the state, able to provide significant scholarship support hundreds of students. Willamette also has one of the best bond ratings in the state with less institutional debt than many of our peers and the level of deferred maintenance on our buildings is within recommended norms. We have been prudently managed for many decades, and our financial fundamentals are strong.

That isn't to say that we don't have to make hard choices or adapt as enrollment levels in our various schools and programs shift. Our undergraduate college grew rapidly in the early part of the decade as a tidal wave of students fled California after the 2008 financial crisis, and then we shrunk again as the University of California acted aggressively to build in-state enrollments. During our growth years, we hired dozens of new faculty and expanded programs. Today we are rebalancing faculty and staff numbers to match our current student size. Shrinking is hard, not least because we value and want to protect many of our new initiatives. But in my twenty years of higher ed leadership, I have never had a year where there was enough money to support every good idea and priority. After all, holding down tuition increases is also an important goal!

But for a financially healthy institution like Willamette, even significant budget realignments like the one we have been doing do not signal an existential threat. The biggest threat to Willamette, and to our peers like Whitman and Lewis & Clark, is that we will lose focus on the fiscal discipline that has allowed us all to thrive for over a century, and by shying away from making the hard year-to-year prioritization decisions we will start to erode the value of the endowment, the health of our facilities, and the fundamental strength of our university.

We are making the hard decisions now so that a generation or two from now we don't find ourselves where Concordia is today, or where Marylhurst was a year ago, losing our ability to advance our worthy mission and to educate future generations of Bearcats who will, for decades and centuries to come, carry the Willamette ideal of service into the never-ending work of building a more just world.

Non nobis solum,
Steve

Dear Bearcats,

Higher education has a language all its own, with words like "matriculation" to mean "enrollment" and "cum laude" to mean "with honors". While such language can be an enjoyable link to medieval tradition, it can also become a barrier that can make some feel they don't belong. There is a reason Willamette does not use the traditional term "bursar," preferring the more descriptive name "student accounts."
 
"Liberal arts" itself has become an increasingly challenging term. Those of us in higher education like to think the phrase is well understood: the liberal arts are distinguished from the mechanical arts and are the disciplines or practices intended to prepare people to be active and engaged members of society. Today, the liberal arts encompass the humanities, natural and social sciences, mathematics, and the creative arts.
 
But beyond the political confusion over the word "liberal," today many people (including colleagues in large universities) have come to see "liberal arts" as defined in opposition to the buzzword "STEM" (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Many prospective students and families don't understand that liberal arts colleges provide outstanding education in science, outperforming research universities in graduating students who will go on to get STEM doctorates.

So, after considerable discussion and in the interest of clarity, the Willamette University's Board of Trustees voted to rename the College of Liberal Arts the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) at their meeting last October. We have been starting to use "CAS" in various conversations, but the official effective date will be by the start of the 2020-21 academic year after web and printed materials have been updated.
This name change is just that - a name change. Willamette's commitment to liberal education and the liberal arts remains unchanged and unwavering. This name change better reflects the breadth of our curricular offerings and aligns our terminology with both modern practice and common understanding.
 
Steve

Dear Bearcats,

Each year I use the occasion of Willamette Day — the anniversary of our Feb. 1, 1842 founding — to comment on Willamette’s past, present and future. Last year, my letter ran close to 3200 words, describing in great detail the exciting ongoing transformation of Willamette from a mostly disconnected group of three schools into an integrated university capable of offering academic programs at the undergraduate and graduate level that have a breadth and quality unmatched by any Northwest competitor.

"Too long, didn't read" was the response of a few to my wordy message, so for them, I will keep this year’s note short and simply say how grateful and proud I am to be at the Northwest’s premier private university, working with some of the best and most dedicated faculty and staff I have encountered anywhere, serving talented students who are passionate about carrying Willamette’s motto and values into their post-graduation lives. 

Although February 1 falls on a Saturday this year, we will celebrate it as a community this Friday. I hope you will join me in displaying your Bearcat pride on Friday by wearing your Willamette colors and gear and enjoying a slice of birthday cake in the UC, Montag, Kaneko, AGSM, Law or Goudy. Here’s to 178 years of serving the Northwest and the world, and best wishes for the year to come.

Go Bearcats!
Steve

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,
Steve 
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!
Steve
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,
Steve

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,
Steve

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!
Steve
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,
Steve
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!
Steve
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,
Steve
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.

Steve
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,

Steve

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!
Steve

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!
Steve

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.

Steve

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!

Steve

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.

Steve

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!
Steve


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