Words from Waller

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

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,


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,
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,
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.


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. 


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,

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!

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,

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,

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.

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!

Dear Bearcats,
Welcome back and Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

Non nobis solum,
Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

Go Bearcats!
Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Bearcats,

Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

See you there,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Bearcats!
Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

Non nobis solum,
Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Halloween.

Go Bearcats!
Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non nobis solum,
Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's Willamette, dammit.

Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

Non nobis solum,


Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Bearcats!

Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Bearcats!

Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

Go Bearcats!


Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dear Bearcats,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Bearcats!

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